FOIL-AO-13559 August 19, 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 facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter and the correspondence attached to it. You have sought an advisory opinion concerning a denial of access by the City of Yonkers to financial disclosure statements filed by its officers and employees. In the denial of your request, the City's Freedom of Information Officer wrote that:
"The Yonkers City Code, Article VII, §7-17(F) specifically states that these reports are not public records. Furthermore, the City Code also states that the individuals whose disclosure sheets are sought, must be notified of the such request and be given the opportunity to request the deletion of any information not subject to release.
"Your request for access and review of the Financial Disclosure Forms for all City employees is inappropriate. If you wish to make a request for a specific individual's Financial Disclosure Form, that request will be forwarded to the Board of Ethics for review and further to the individual for review per Article VII."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, I do not believe that a provision of a city code can require that records be kept confidential. Based on judicial decisions, an assertion or claim of confidentiality, unless it is based upon a statute, is likely meaningless. When confidentiality is conferred by a statute, records fall outside the scope of rights of access pursuant to §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, which states that an agency may withhold records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute". If there is no statute upon which an agency can rely to characterize records as "confidential" or "exempted from disclosure", the records are subject to whatever rights of access exist under the Freedom of Information Law [see Doolan v.BOCES, 48 NY 2d 341 (1979); Washington Post v. Insurance Department, 61 NY 2d 557 (1984); Gannett News Service, Inc. v. State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, 415 NYS 2d 780 (1979)]. As such, an assertion of confidentiality without more, would not in my opinion guarantee or require confidentiality.
Moreover, it has been held by several courts, including the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, that an agency's regulations or the provisions of a local enactment, such as an administrative code, local law, charter or ordinance, for example, do not constitute a "statute" [see e.g., Morris v. Martin, Chairman of the State Board of Equalization and Assessment, 440 NYS 2d 365, 82 Ad 2d 965, reversed 55 NY 2d 1026 (1982); Zuckerman v. NYS Board of Parole, 385 NYS 2d 811, 53 AD 2d 405 (1976); Sheehan v. City of Syracuse, 521 NYS 2d 207 (1987)]. For purposes of the Freedom of Information Law, a statute would be an enactment of the State Legislature or Congress. Therefore, a local enactment cannot confer, require or promise confidentiality. This not to suggest that many of the records used, developed or acquired in conjunction with an ethics code must be disclosed; rather, I am suggesting that those records may in some instances be withheld in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in the Freedom of Information Law, and that any local enactment that is inconsistent with that statute would be void to the extent of any such inconsistency.
Second, when the Ethics in Government Act went into effect, it created a New York State Temporary Commission on Local Government Ethics. Although the Commission no longer exists, various provisions concerning its former role are in my view relevant to an analysis of the issue. While the advisory jurisdiction of this office involves the Freedom of Information Law, in this instance, in order to provide advice concerning the matter, it is necessary to interpret certain provisions of the General Municipal Law.
The central issue involves which law applies -- the Freedom of Information Law, the General Municipal Law, or perhaps a local enactment.
By way of legislative history, when a municipality elected to file financial disclosure statements with the Commission when it existed, §813 of the General Municipal Law provided direction. Specifically, paragraph (a) of subdivision (18) of that statute states that:
"Notwithstanding the provisions of article six of the public officers law, the only records of the commission which shall be available for public inspection are:
(1) the information set forth in an annual statement of financial disclosure filed pursuant to local law, ordinance or resolution or filed pursuant to section eight hundred eleven or eight hundred twelve of this article except the categories of value or amount which shall remain confidential and any other item of information deleted pursuant to paragraph h of subdivision nine of this section, as the case may be;
(2) notices of delinquency sent under subdivision eleven of this section;
(3) notices of reasonable cause sent under paragraph b of subdivision twelve of this section; and
(4) notices of civil assessments imposed under this section."
As such, §813(18)(a) governed rights of access to records of "the commission".
Notably, in a memorandum prepared by the Commission in April of 1991 and transmitted to me, the Commission wrote that "The Act does not specifically address the public availability of annual financial disclosure statements filed with a municipality's own local ethics board." That memorandum states, however, that "the Act does authorize a Section 811 Municipality to promulgate rules and regulations, which 'may provide for the public availability of items of information to be contained on such form of statement of financial disclosure'." Section 811(1)(c) authorizes the governing body of a municipality to promulgate:
"rules and regulations pursuant to local law, ordinance or resolution which rules or regulations may provide for the public availability of items of information to be contained on such form of statement of financial disclosure, the determination of penalties for violation of such rules or regulations, and such other powers as are conferred upon the temporary state commission on local government ethics pursuant to section eight hundred thirteen of this article as such local governing body determines are warranted under the circumstances."
In addition, §811(1)(d) states in part that if a local board of ethics is designated to carry out duties that would otherwise be performed by the Commission:
"then such local law, ordinance or resolution shall confer upon the board appropriate authority to enforce such filing requirement, including the authority to promulgate rules and regulations of the same import as those which the temporary state commission on local government ethics enjoys under section eight hundred thirteen of this article."
In turn, §813(9)(c) states in relevant part that the Commission shall "[a]dopt, amend, and rescind rules and regulations to govern procedures of the commission..." As such, it appears that the regulatory authority of the Commission was and, therefore, a local board of ethics, is restricted to the procedural implementation of the Ethics in Government Act. In my view, issues concerning rights of access to records do not involve matters of procedure, but rather matters of substantive law that are governed by statute.
In my opinion, the governing statute is the Freedom of Information Law. In brief, 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.
Under §813(18)(a)(1) of the General Municipal Law, financial disclosure statements filed with the Commission were available, except those portions indicating categories of value or amount or when it is found that reported items "have no material bearing on the discharge of the reporting person's official duties." In my view, the same information that was exempted from disclosure could be deleted from a financial disclosure statement maintained by a municipality under the Freedom of Information Law on the ground that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" [see §87(2)(b) and 89(2)(b)]. Rather than being "confidential", I believe that financial disclosure statements would be accessible, except to the extent that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy in accordance with the preceding commentary. Although the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public employees. It is clear that public employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public employees are required to be more accountable than others. With regard to records pertaining to public employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a public employee's official duties are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NY 2d 954 (1978); Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty., March 25, 1981; Montes v. State, 406 NYS 2d 664 (Court of Claims, 1978); Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); Scaccia v. NYS Division of State Police, 530 NYS 2d 309, 138 AD 2d 50 (1988); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)]. Conversely, to the extent that records are irrelevant to the performance of one's official duties, it has been found that disclosure would indeed constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Matter of Wool, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., NYLJ, Nov. 22, 1977].
Several of the decisions cited above, for example, Farrell, Sinicropi, Geneva Printing, Scaccia and Powhida, dealt with situations in which determinations indicating findings of misconduct or the imposition of some sort of disciplinary action pertaining to particular public employees were found to be available. However, when allegations or charges of misconduct have not yet been determined or did not result in disciplinary action, the records relating to such allegations may, in my view, be withheld, for disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Herald Company v. School District of City of Syracuse, 430 NYS 2d 460 (1980)]. Further, to the extent that charges are dismissed or allegations are found to be without merit, I believe that they may be withheld.
The other provision of relevance, §87(2)(g), states that an agency may 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. Records prepared in conjunction with an inquiry or investigation would in my view constitute intra- agency materials. Insofar as they consist of opinions, advice, conjecture, recommendations and the like, I believe that they could be withheld. Factual information would in my view be available, except to the extent, under the circumstances, that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
Third, with respect to a requirement that you request a specific financial disclosure statement rather than all such statements filed during a given year, for example, pertinent is §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states in part that an applicant is required to "reasonably describe" the records sought. In this regard, it I point out that it has been held by the Court of Appeals that to deny a request on the ground that it fails to reasonably describe the records, an agency must establish that "the descriptions were insufficient for purposes of locating and identifying the documents sought" [Konigsberg v. Coughlin, 68 NY 2d 245, 249 (1986)].
The Court in Konigsberg found that the agency could not reject the request due to its breadth and also stated that:
"respondents have failed to supply any proof whatsoever as to the nature - or even the existence - of their indexing system: whether the Department's files were indexed in a manner that would enable the identification and location of documents in their possession (cf. National Cable Tel. Assn. v Federal Communications Commn., 479 F2d 183, 192 [Bazelon, J.] [plausible claim of nonidentifiability under Federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 USC section 552 (a) (3), may be presented where agency's indexing system was such that 'the requested documents could not be identified by retracing a path already trodden. It would have required a wholly new enterprise, potentially requiring a search of every file in the possession of the agency'])" (id. at 250).
In my view, whether a request reasonably describes the records sought, as suggested by the Court of Appeals, may be dependent upon the terms of a request, as well as the nature of an agency's filing or record-keeping system. In Konigsberg, it appears that the agency was able to locate the records on the basis of an inmate's name and identification number. In this instance, if all of the statements are filed with the City's Board of Ethics, for example, it is likely that they could be found with reasonable effort. If that is so, I believe that the request would meet the standard of "reasonably describing" the records.
Lastly, with respect to the delay in determining rights of access, 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.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, in my view, every law must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent, and I point out that in its statement of legislative intent, §84 of the Freedom of Information Law states that "it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible." Therefore, if records are clearly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law, or if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a lengthy delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals has asserted:
"...the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such objectives cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to bring them about permeate the body politic to a point where they become the rule rather than the exception. The phrase 'public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' therefore merely punctuates with explicitness what in any event is implicit" [Westchester News v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 579 (1980)].
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)].
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: William Mooney