June 10, 2002
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letters, respectively dated May 3 and May 9, pertaining to a request made under the Freedom of Information Law by the Post-Standard for copies of statements of legal services submitted by the firm of O'Hara and O'Connell to the Liverpool Central School District over a five year period.
In brief, while various aspects of the records have been determined to be accessible, Mr. O'Hara has contended that "the District is not required to release any narrative description of the legal services that have been provided to it because such information is subject to the attorney client privilege as codified in CPLR §4503" (emphasis his); Mr. Bunn believes that the redactions were made erroneously, for in many instances, the information that has been withheld merely involves a "reasonable description of the matter that outside counsel worked on and got paid for."
From my perspective, when the attorney client privilege is applicable, it is clear that a communication falling within the scope of the privilege may be withheld. Nevertheless, as in numerous other situations involving the Freedom of Information Law, the nature and content of a record determine the extent to which the record may be withheld. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, and perhaps most importantly, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law. It is emphasized that the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the exceptions that follow. In my view, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence evidences a recognition on the part of the Legislature that a single record or report, for example, might include portions that are available under the statute, as well as portions that might justifiably be withheld. That being so, I believe that it also imposes an obligation on an agency to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, might properly be withheld or deleted prior to disclosing the remainder.
The Court of Appeals confirmed its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law in Gould v. New York City Police Department, stating that:
"To ensure maximum access to government records, the 'exemptions are to be narrowly construed, with the burden resting on the agency to demonstrate that the requested material indeed qualifies for exemption' (Matter of Hanig v. State of New York Dept. of Motor Vehicles, 79 N.Y.2d 106, 109, 580 N.Y.S.2d 715, 588 N.E.2d 750 see, Public Officers Law § 89[b]). As this Court has stated, '[o]nly where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld' (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 N.Y.2d, 567, 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463)" [89 NY2d 267, 275 (1996)].
Just as significant, the Court in Gould repeatedly specified that a categorical denial of access to records is inconsistent with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law. The Court also offered guidance to agencies and lower courts in determining rights of access and referred to several decisions it had previously rendered, stating that:
"...to invoke one of the exemptions of section 87(2), the agency must articulate 'particularized and specific justification' for not disclosing requested documents (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, supra, 47 N.Y.2d, at 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463). If the court is unable to determine whether withheld documents fall entirely within the scope of the asserted exemption, it should conduct an in camera inspection of representative documents and order disclosure of all nonexempt, appropriately redacted material (see, Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 N.Y.2d 131, 133, 490 N.Y.S. 2d, 488, 480 N.E.2d 74; Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., supra, 62 N.Y.2d, at 83, 476 N.Y.S.2d 69, 464 N.E.2d 437)" (id.).
In the context of the situation at issue, again, Mr. O'Hara has contended that "any narrative description" of legal services rendered would be subject to the attorney client privilege. In my view, that opinion is overbroad.
By way of background, the first ground for denial, §87(2)(a), pertains to records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." For more than a century, the courts have found that legal advice given by a municipal attorney to his or her clients, municipal officials, is privileged when it is prepared or imparted pursuant to an attorney-client relationship [see e.d., People ex rel. Updyke v. Gilon, 9 NYS 243, 244 (1889); Pennock v. Lane, 231 NYS 2d 897, 898, (1962); Bernkrant v. City Rent and Rehabilitation Administration, 242 NYS 2d 752 (1963), aff'd 17 App. Div. 2d 392]. As such, I believe that a municipal attorney may engage in a privileged relationship with his or her client and that records prepared in conjunction with such a nattorney-client relationship may be considered privileged under §4503 of the CPLR. Further, since the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, it has been found that records may be withheld when the privilege can appropriately be asserted when the attorney-client privilege is read in conjunction with §87(2)(a) of the Law [see e.g., Mid-Boro Medical Group v. New York City Department of Finance, Sup. Ct., Bronx Cty., NYLJ, December 7, 1979; Steele v. NYS Department of Health, 464 NY 2d 925 (1983)]. Similarly, the work product of an attorney may be confidential under §3101 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules.
In the first decision of which I am aware in which the request involved records sought under the Freedom of Information Law concerning services rendered by an attorney to a government agency, Knapp v. Board of Education, Canisteo Central School District (Supreme Court, Steuben County, November 23, 1990), the matter pertained to a request for billing statements for legal services provided to a board of education by a law firm. Since the statements made available included "only the time period covered and the total amount owed for services and disbursements", the applicant contended that "she is entitled to that billing information which would detail the fee, the type of matter for which the legal services were rendered and the names of the parties to any current litigation". In its discussion of the issue, the court found that: "The difficulty of defining the limits of the attorney client privilege has been recognized by the New York State Court of Appeals. (Matter of Priest v. Hennessy, 51 NY2d 62, 68.) Nevertheless, the Court has ruled that this privilege is not limitless and generally does not extend to the fee arrangements between an attorney and client. (Matter of Priest v. Hennessy, supra.)...
"There appear to be no New York cases which specifically address how much of a fee arrangement must be revealed beyond the name of the client, the amount billed and the terms of the agreement. However, the United States Court of Appeals, in interpreting federal law, has found that questions pertaining to the date and general nature of legal services performed were not violative of client confidentiality. (Cotton v. United States, 306 F.2d 633.) In that Court's analysis such information did not involve the substance of the matters being communicated and, consequently, was not privileged...
"...Respondents have not justified their refusal to obliterate any and all information which would reveal the date, general nature of service rendered and time spent. While the Court can understand that in a few limited instances the substance of a legal communication might be revealed in a billing statement, Respondents have failed to come forward with proof that such information is contained in each and every document so as to justify a blanket denial of disclosure. Conclusory characterizations are insufficient to support a claim of privilege. (Church of Scientology v. State of New York, 46 NY 2d 906, 908.)"
In short, in Knapp, it was found that those portions of billing statements indicating "the general nature of legal services performed", as well as certain others, did not fall within the attorney client privilege and were available.
In the other decision dealing with the issue under the Freedom of Information Law, Orange County Publications, Inc. v. County of Orange [637 NYS 2d 596 (1995)], the matter involved a request for "the amount of money paid in 1994 to a particular law firm for legal services rendered in representing the County in a landfill expansion suit, as well as "copies of invoices, bills, vouchers submitted to the county from the law firm justifying and itemizing the expenses for 1994" (id., 599). Although monthly bills indicating amounts charged by the firm were disclosed, the agency redacted "'the daily descriptions of the specific tasks' (the description material) 'including descriptions of issues researched, meetings and conversations between attorney and client'" (id.).
Although the County argued that the "description material" is specifically exempted from disclosure by statute in conjunction with §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law and the assertion of the attorney-client privilege pursuant to §4503 of the CPLR, the court found that the mere communication between the law firm and the County as its client does not necessarily involve a privileged communication; rather, the court stressed that it is the content of the communications that determines the extent to which the privilege applies. Further, the court distinguished between actual communications between attorney and client and descriptions of the legal services provided, stating that:
"Thus, respondent's position can be sustained only if such descriptions rise to the level of protected communications...
"Consequently, while billing statements which 'are detailed in showing services, conversations, and conferences between counsel and others' are protected by the attorney-client privilege (Licensing Corporation of America v. National Hockey League Players Association, 153 Misc.2d 126, 127-128, 580 N.Y.S.2d 128 [Sup. Ct. N.Y.Co. 1992]; see, De La Roche v. De La Roche, 209 A.D.2d 157, 158-159 [1st Dept. 1994]), no such privilege attaches to fee statements which do not provide 'detailed accounts' of the legal services provided by counsel..." (id., 602).
In my view, the key word in the foregoing is "detailed." Certainly I would agree that a description of litigation strategy, for example, would fall within the scope of the attorney client privilege; clearly the Freedom of Information Law does not serve as a vehicle for enabling the public, which includes an adversary or potential adversary in litigation, to know the thought processes of an attorney providing legal services to his or her client. Similarly, because the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 USC §1232g) prohibits the disclosure of information personally identifiable to students, I agree that references identifiable to students may properly be deleted. However, as suggested in both Knapp and Orange County Publications, "descriptive" material reflective of the "general nature of services rendered ordinarily" would beyond the coverage of the privilege.
Having received copies of redacted billing statements from both of you, I cannot know of the nature of the redactions. However, if, for instance, redactions indicate the name or caption of a matter that is in litigation, since the fact of litigation is generally public, I do not believe that redaction in every such instance would be consistent with law. Similarly, not every reference to a grievant could, in my view, justifiably be withheld. If a grievance relates to an employee's medical condition, it is likely that the disclosure of his or her name would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" [see §87(2)(b)]. On the other hand, if the grievance involves a matter pertaining to employees generally, there would be no issue regarding privacy, and therefore, likely no basis for redaction. Similarly, reference is made to various telephone conferences, some of which involve public employees (i.e., "telephone conference with _______ of Office of Facilities Planning at SED"); that person would not be client of the attorney, an employee or a student, and I cannot envision how disclosure of that person's identity could be characterized as privileged.
Historically, and on the basis of case law, I believe that the proper assertion of the privilege involves the need to ensure that an advantage is not given to an adversary. I would conjecture that disclosure of many of the items that were deleted would have no such adverse effect. In those circumstances, the attorney client privilege could not, in my view, be properly asserted.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman