November 3, 2005
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.
We are in receipt of your August 4, 2005 request for an advisory opinion concerning the application of the Freedom of Information Law to various records which you have requested from the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District.
Based on the information you provided, including responsive correspondence from the Commissioner’s Office, your request for 57 separate records has been denied, with the exception of one partially redacted intra-agency letter, which was considered a final agency determination. The appeal officer’s letter affirms the denial of access by repeating the record access officer’s reference to Public Officers Law §§87(2)(e)(i), 87(2)(e)(iii) and 87(2)(e)(iv), adding, "I find that this information is exempt from disclosure under §87(2)(g), with the exception of the document previously provided to you pursuant to subsection (iii) of that section."
While it is possible that some elements of the records sought might justifiably be withheld, the expressed basis for the affirmance of the denial is, in our opinion, inadequate. In this regard, we offer the following comments.
First, §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law pertains to the right to appeal a denial of access to records and requires that an agency's determination of an appeal must either grant access to the records or "fully explain in writing... the reasons for further denial." In this instance, the determination following your appeal merely repeated citations referenced in the initial denial of access. From our perspective, the response to the appeal could not be characterized as having "fully explained" the reasons for further denial. We note that the New York City Department of Investigation was criticized in Lewis v. Giuliani (Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, May 1, 1997) for a denial of access also based merely on a reiteration of the statutory language of an exception, stating that "DOI may not engage in mantra-like invocation of the personal privacy exemption in an effort to 'have carte blanche to withhold any information it pleases'". In this instance, the "law enforcement purposes" exceptions appear to have been used in much the same manner.
Second, in a related vein, the denial appears to be inconsistent with the language and intent of the Freedom of the Freedom of Information Law and its judicial construction. In short, it appears to evince a refusal to follow or recognize the clear direction provided by not only in Lewis, but also by the Court of Appeals in Gould v. New York City Police Department, [87 NY 2d 267 (1996)].
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 our 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, we 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 reiterated its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law in Gould, 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)" (id., 275).
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. In that case, the Police Department contended that complaint follow up reports could be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they fall within the exception regarding intra-agency materials, §87(2)(g), an exception separate from those cited in response to your request. The Court, however, wrote that: "Petitioners contend that because the complaint follow-up reports contain factual data, the exemption does not justify complete nondisclosure of the reports. We agree" (id., 276), and stated as a general principle that "blanket exemptions for particular types of documents are inimical to FOIL's policy of open government" (id., 275). 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 your request, the Commissioner’s Office has engaged in a denial of access in a manner which, in our view, is equally inappropriate. We are not suggesting that the records sought must be disclosed in full. Rather, based on the direction given by the Court of Appeals in several decisions, the records must be reviewed by Commissioner’s Office for the purpose of identifying those portions of the records that might fall within the scope of one or more of the grounds for denial of access. As the Court stated later in the decision: "Indeed, the Police Department is entitled to withhold complaint follow-up reports, or specific portions thereof, under any other applicable exemption, such as the law-enforcement exemption or the public-safety exemption, as long as the requisite particularized showing is made" (id., 277; emphasis added).
Several provisions were cited to justify the denial of your request. Subparagraphs (iii) and (iv) of §87(2)(e) indicate that an agency may withhold records "compiled for law enforcement purposes" to the extent that disclosure would:
"iii. identify a confidential source or disclose confidential information relating to a criminal investigation; or
iv. reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures, except routine techniques and procedures."
Although we am unaware of the contents of the records withheld under the provisions quoted above, as is so in conjunction with other exceptions to rights of access, they, too have been construed in a manner that would maximize disclosure while enabling agencies to deny access to prevent some sort of harm or impediment to law enforcement functions.
For example, to qualify as a confidential source, it has been held that an individual must have been given a promise of confidentiality. In a case involving records maintained by the New York City Police Department relating to a sexual assault, it was held that:
"NYPD has failed to meet its burden to establish that the material sought is exempt from disclosure. While NYPD has invoked a number of exemptions with might justify its failure to supply the requested information, it has failed to specify with particularity the basis for its refusal...
"As to the concern for the privacy of the witnesses to the assault, NYPD has not alleged that anyone was promised confidentiality in exchange for his cooperation in the investigation so as to qualify as a 'confidential source' within the meaning of the statute (Public Officers Law §87[e][iii]" [Cornell University v. City of New York Police Department, 153 AD 2d 515, 517 (1989); motion for leave to appeal denied, 72 NY 2d 707 (1990).
The leading decision concerning §87(2)(e)(iv), Fink v. Lefkowitz, involved access to a manual prepared by a special prosecutor that investigated nursing homes, in which the Court of Appeals held that:
"The purpose of this exemption is obvious. Effective law enforcement demands that violators of the law not be apprised the nonroutine procedures by which an agency obtains its information (see Frankel v. Securities & Exch. Comm., 460 F2d 813, 817, cert den 409 US 889). However beneficial its thrust, the purpose of the Freedom of Information Law is not to enable persons to use agency records to frustrate pending or threatened investigations nor to use that information to construct a defense to impede a prosecution.
"To be distinguished from agency records compiled for law enforcement purposes which illustrate investigative techniques, are those which articulate the agency's understanding of the rules and regulations it is empowered to enforce. Records drafted by the body charged with enforcement of a statute which merely clarify procedural or substantive law must be disclosed. Such information in the hands of the public does not impede effective law enforcement. On the contrary, such knowledge actually encourages voluntary compliance with the law by detailing the standards with which a person is expected to comply, thus allowing him to conform his conduct to those requirements (see Stokes v. Brennan, 476 F2d 699, 702; Hawkes v. Internal Revenue Serv., 467 F2d 787, 794-795; Davis, Administrative Law [1970 Supp], section 3A, p 114).
"Indicative, but not necessarily dispositive of whether investigative techniques are nonroutine is whether disclosure of those procedures would give rise to a substantial likelihood that violators could evade detection by deliberately tailoring their conduct in anticipation of avenues of inquiry to be pursued by agency personnel (see Cox v. United States Dept. of Justice, 576 F2d 1302, 1307-1308; City of Concord v. Ambrose, 333 F Supp 958)."
In applying those criteria to specific portions of the manual, which was compiled for law enforcement purposes, the Court found that:
"Chapter V of the Special Prosecutor's Manual provides a graphic illustration of the confidential techniques used in a successful nursing home prosecution. None of those procedures are 'routine' in the sense of fingerprinting or ballistic tests (see Senate Report No. 93-1200, 93 Cong 2d Sess ). Rather, they constitute detailed, specialized methods of conducting an investigation into the activities of a specialized industry in which voluntary compliance with the law has been less then exemplary.
"Disclosure of the techniques enumerated in those pages would enable an operator to tailor his activities in such a way as to significantly diminish the likelihood of a successful prosecution. The information detailed on pages 481 and 482 of the manual, on the other hand, is merely a recitation of the obvious: that auditors should pay particular attention to requests by nursing homes for Medicaid reimbursement rate increases based upon projected increase in cost. As this is simply a routine technique that would be used in any audit, there is no reason why these pages should not be disclosed" (id. at 573).
From our perspective, as the Court of Appeals has suggested, to the extent that the records in question include descriptions of investigative techniques, which if disclosed would enable potential lawbreakers to evade detection or endanger the lives or safety of law enforcement personnel or others [see also, Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(f)], a denial of access would be appropriate. Insofar as those potentially harmful effects would not arise by means of disclosure, however, §87(2)(e)(iv) would not serve as a basis for a denial or access.
The remaining ground for denial cited by the Commissioner’s Office, §87(2)(g), authorizes 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 our view be withheld.
The Court of Appeals in Gould, supra, analyzed the provision quoted above and found 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)...
"...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).
"Against this backdrop, we conclude that the complaint follow-up reports contain substantial factual information available pursuant to the provisions of FOIL. Sections of the report are devoted to such purely factual data as: the names, addresses, and physical descriptions of crime victims, witnesses, and perpetrators; a checklist that indicates whether the victims and witnesses have been interviewed and shown photos, whether crime scenes have been photographed and dusted for fingerprints, and whether neighborhood residents have been canvassed for information; and a blank space denominated 'details' in which the officer records the particulars of any action taken in connection with the investigation.
"However, the Police Department argues that any witness statements contained in the reports, in particular, are not 'factual' because there is no assurance of the statements' accuracy and reliability. We decline to read such a reliability requirement into the phrase 'factual data', as the dissent would have us do, and conclude that a witness statement constitutes factual data insofar as it embodies a factual account of the witness's observations. Such a statement, moreover, is far removed from the type of internal government exchange sought to be protected by the intra-agency exemption (see, Matter of Ingram v. Axelrod, 90 AD2d 568, 569 [ambulance records, list of interviews, and reports of interviews available under FOIL as 'factual data']). By contrast, any impressions, recommendations, or opinions recorded in the complaint follow-up report would not constitute factual data and would be exempt from disclosure. The holding herein is only that these reports are not categorically exempt as intra-agency material. Indeed, the Police Department is entitled to withhold complaint follow-up reports, or specific portions thereof, under any other applicable exemption, such as the law-enforcement exemption or the public-safety exemption, as long as the requisite particularized showing is made" [Gould, Scott and DeFelice v. New York City Police Department, 89 NY2d 267, 276-277 (1996); emphasis added by the Court].
Based on the foregoing, the agency could not claim that the complaint reports can be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they constitute intra-agency materials.
In sum, in consideration of the preceding commentary, we believe that the denial of your request was overbroad and that various aspects of the records sought must be disclosed. Further, the Commissioner’s Office may disclose records, even though there may be authority to deny access. As the Court of Appeals has pointed out, the Freedom of Information Law is permissive; an agency may choose to disclose, notwithstanding its ability to deny access to records [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 109 AD2d 92, aff’d 67 NY2d 562 (1986)].
Finally, to the extent that the Commissioner’s Office has denied your request for copies of records submitted by your client, it is our opinion that there is no basis in the law for non-disclosure, upon receipt of payment of the appropriate fee.
I trust this meets with your request. Should you have any further questions, please contact me directly.
Camille S. Jobin-Davis