FOIL-AO-13623 September 9, 2002
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
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.
As you are aware, I have received your letter in which you inquired with respect to rights of access to records prepared by an attorney for Suffolk County. The County denied access to a certain record "stating that it was the product of an Attorney and therefore exempt." You have contended, however, that "an Attorney, hired and paid by the County...is merely a paid employee of the County...and thus non exempt."
From my perspective, while a county attorney or assistant county attorney is indeed an employee of a county, the county, which is a public corporation, has the authority to assert certain privileges associated with the functions of attorneys in the same manner as other entities or persons.
As a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to all records of an agency, such as a county, and 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.
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 in conjunction with an attorney-client relationship [see e.g., 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 an attorney-client relationship may be considered privileged under §4503 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules (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)].
Section 3101 of the CPLR pertains to disclosure in a context related to litigation, and subdivision (a) reflects the general principle that "[t]here shall be full disclosure of all matter material and necessary in the prosecution or defense of an action..." The Advisory Committee Notes pertaining to §3101 state that the intent is "to facilitate disclosure before trial of the facts bearing on a case while limiting the possibilities of abuse." The prevention of "abuse" is considered in the remaining provisions of §3101, which describe limitations on disclosure.
One of those limitations, §3101(c), states that "[t]he work product of an attorney shall not be obtainable", and §3101(d)(2) dealing with material prepared in anticipation of litigation states in relevant part that:
"materials otherwise discoverable under subdivision (a) of this section and prepared in anticipation of litigation or for trial by or for another party, or by or for the other party's representative (including an attorney, consultant, surety, indemnitor, insurer or agent), may be obtained only upon a showing that the party seeking discovery has substantial need of the materials in the preparation of the case and is unable without undue hardship to obtain the substantial equivalent of the materials by other means. In ordering discovery of the materials when the required showing has been made, the court shall protect against disclosure of the mental impressions, conclusions, opinions or legal theories of an attorney or other representative of a party concerning the litigation."
Both of those provisions are intended to shield from an adversary records that would result in a strategic advantage or disadvantage, as the case may be. In a decision in which it was determined that records could justifiably be withheld as attorney work product, the "disputed documents" were "clearly work product documents which contain the opinions, reflections and thought process of partners and associates" of a law firm "which have not been communicated or shown to individuals outside of that law firm" [Estate of Johnson, 538 NYS 2d 173 (1989)]. In another decision, the ability to withhold the work product of an attorney was discussed, and it was found that:
"The attorney-client privilege requires some showing that the subject information was disclosed in a confidential communication to an attorney for the purpose of obtaining legal advice (Matter of Priest v. Hennessy, 51 N.Y.2d 62, 68-69, 431 N.Y.S.2d 511, 409 N.E.2d 983). The work-product privilege requires an attorney affidavit showing that the information was generated by an attorney for the purpose of litigation (see, Warren v. New York City Tr. Auth., 34 A.D.2d 749, 310 N.Y.S.2d 277). The burden of satisfying each element of the privilege falls on the party asserting it (Priest v. Hennessy, supra, 51 N.Y.2d at 69, 431 N.Y.S. 2d 511, 409 N.E.2d 983), and conclusory assertions will not suffice (Witt v. Triangle Steel Prods. Corp., 103 A.D.2d 742, 477 N.Y.S.2d 210)" [Coastal Oil New York, Inc. v. Peck, [184 AD 2d 241 (1992)].
In sum, assuming that the records of your interest consist of the work product of an attorney or were prepared in anticipation of litigation and that they have not been filed with a court or copies given to an adversary, it appears that they would be exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Suffolk County Department of Law