August 6, 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 letter of July 23 concerning a request for records directed to the Department of Taxation and Finance.
By way of background, in a letter of April 18, citing the Freedom of Information Law, you requested all records pertaining to you sent or received by named employees of the Department since April 1, 2001 and added that the records sought "are vital in the preparation" of certain proceedings in which you are involved. Although you received some of the records sought, you complained with respect to the delay in determining rights of access, and many records were withheld. You have asked that I "take appropriate action to bring the Department....into compliance with the FOIL laws..." and that I "provide [you] with a copy of [my] ruling on the Department of Taxation and Finance's failure to comply with the FOIL laws..."
In this regard, it is noted at the outset that this office is authorized to provide advice and opinions relating to public access to government records. Neither the Committee nor its staff is empowered to compel an agency to grant or deny access to records, to issue a "ruling", or to determine that an agency might have failed to comply with law. However, in an effort to provide guidance, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied..."
Based on the foregoing, an agency must grant access to records, deny access or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days of receipt of a request. When an acknowledgement is given, it must include an approximate date indicating when it can be anticipated that a request will be granted or denied.
I note that there is no precise time period within which an agency must grant or deny access to records. The time needed to do so may be dependent upon the volume of a request, the possibility that other requests have been made, the necessity to conduct legal research, the search and retrieval techniques used to locate the records and the like. In short, when an agency acknowledges the receipt of a request because more than five business days may be needed to grant or deny a request, so long as it provides an approximate date indicating when the request will be granted or denied, and that date is reasonable in view of the attendant circumstances, I believe that the agency would be acting in compliance with law.
A relatively recent judicial decision cited and confirmed the advice rendered by this office. In Linz v. The Police Department of the City of New York (Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, December 17, 2001), it was held that:
"In the absence of a specific statutory period, this Court concludes that respondents should be given a 'reasonable' period to comply with a FOIL request. The determination of whether a period is reasonable must be made on a case by case basis taking into account the volume of documents requested, the time involved in locating the material, and the complexity of the issues involved in determining whether the materials fall within one of the exceptions to disclosure. Such a standard is consistent with some of the language in the opinions, submitted by petitioners in this case, of the Committee on Open Government, the agency charged with issuing advisory opinions on FOIL."
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, or if the acknowledgement of the receipt of a request fails to include an estimated date for granting or denying access, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied [see DeCorse v. City of Buffalo, 239 AD2d 949, 950 (1997)]. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states in relevant part that:
"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d 774 (1982)].
Second, as a general matter, 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.
In consideration of the nature of the records sought, the provision of primary significance under that statute is §87(2)(g), which enables an agency to withhold records that:
"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:
i. statistical or factual tabulations or data;
ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;
iii. final agency policy or determinations; or
iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."
It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter- agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld.
The response by the Department's records access officer indicates that the records at issue were withheld "under Section 87(2)(g)iii", for they are "intra-agency materials, not final determination or policy..." In this regard, I point out that one of the contentions offered by the New York City Police Department in a decision rendered by the Court of Appeals was that certain reports could be withheld because they are not final and because they relate to incidents for which no final determination had been made. The Court of Appeals rejected that finding and stated that:
"...we note that one court has suggested that complaint follow-up reports are exempt from disclosure because they constitute nonfinal intra-agency material, irrespective of whether the information contained in the reports is 'factual data' (see, Matter of Scott v. Chief Medical Examiner, 179 AD2d 443, 444, supra [citing Public Officers Law §87[g]). However, under a plain reading of §87(2)(g), the exemption for intra-agency material does not apply as long as the material falls within any one of the provision's four enumerated exceptions. Thus, intra-agency documents that contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' are subject to FOIL disclosure, whether or not embodied in a final agency policy or determination (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosp. Corp., 62 NY2d 75, 83, supra; Matter of MacRae v. Dolce, 130 AD2d 577)..." [Gould et al. v. New York City Police Department, 87 NY2d 267, 276 (1996)].
In short, that intra-agency material does not reflect a final agency policy or determination would not represent an end of an analysis of rights of access or an agency's obligation to review the contents of a record. The Court also dealt with the issue of what constitutes "factual data" that must be disclosed under §87(2)(g)(i). In its consideration of the matter, the Court found that:
"...Although the term 'factual data' is not defined by statute, the meaning of the term can be discerned from the purpose underlying the intra-agency exemption, which is 'to protect the deliberative process of the government by ensuring that persons in an advisory role [will] be able to express their opinions freely to agency decision makers' (Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 NY2d 131, 132 [quoting Matter of Sea Crest Constr. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD2d 546, 549]). Consistent with this limited aim to safeguard internal government consultations and deliberations, the exemption does not apply when the requested material consists of 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law 87[g][i]. Factual data, therefore, simply means objective information, in contrast to opinions, ideas, or advice exchanged as part of the consultative or deliberative process of government decision making (see, Matter of Johnson Newspaper Corp. v. Stainkamp, 94 AD2d 825, 827, affd on op below, 61 NY2d 958; Matter of Miracle Mile Assocs. v. Yudelson, 68 AD2d 176, 181-182) id., 276-277).]
In my view, insofar as the records at issue consist of recommendations, advice, opinions or constructive material, for example, they may be withheld; insofar as they consist of statistical or factual information, I believe that they must be disclosed, unless a separate exception is applicable.
Lastly, since you requested records pertaining to yourself, had you requested them on the basis of the Personal Privacy Protection Law (Public Officers Law, Article 6-A), the result would likely be different. The Freedom of Information Law deals with rights of access conferred upon the public generally; the Personal Privacy Protection Law deals with rights of access conferred upon an individual, a "data subject", to records pertaining to him or her. A "data subject" is "any natural person about whom personal information has been collected by an agency" [Personal Privacy Protection Law, §92(3)]. "Personal information" is defined to mean "any information concerning a data subject which, because of name, number, symbol, mark or other identifier, can be used to identify that data subject" [§92(7)]. For purposes of the Personal Privacy Protection Law, the term "record" is defined to mean "any item, collection or grouping of personal information about a data subject which is maintained and is retrievable by use of the name or other identifier of the data subject" [§92(9)].
Under §95 of the Personal Privacy Protection Law, a data subject has the right to obtain from a state agency records pertaining to him or her, unless the records sought fall within the scope of exceptions appearing in subdivisions (5), (6) or (7) of that section or §96, which would deal with the privacy of others.
Of potential relevance in relation to your request is subdivision (6)(d) of §95, which states that rights of access by a data subject to not extend to:
"attorney's work product or material prepared for litigation before judicial, quasi-judicial or administrative tribunals, as described in subdivision (c) and (d) of section three thousand one hundred one of the civil practice law and rules, except pursuant to statute, subpoena, search warrant or other court ordered disclosure."
The references to the work product of an attorney and material prepared for litigation are based on subdivisions (c) and (d) §3101 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules.
While as a "data subject", you may enjoy rights of access to some records about yourself, insofar as the records pertain to or identify others, there may be privacy considerations applicable to them. To the extent that the records identify others, §96(1) of the Personal Privacy Protection Law states that "No agency may disclose any record or personal information", except in conjunction with a series of exceptions that follow. One of those exceptions, §96(1)(c), involves a case in which a record is "subject to article six of this chapter [the Freedom of Information Law], unless disclosure of such information would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy as defined in paragraph (a) of subdivision two of section eighty-nine of this chapter". Section 89(2-a) of the Freedom of Information Law states that "Nothing in this article shall permit disclosure which constitutes an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy as defined in subdivision two of this section if such disclosure is prohibited under section ninety-six of this chapter". Consequently, if a state agency cannot disclose records pursuant to §96 of the Personal Protection Law, it is precluded from disclosing under the Freedom of Information Law; alternatively, if disclosure of a record would not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and if the record is available under the Freedom of Information Law, it may be disclosed under §96(1)(c). I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Jude Mullins