April 2, 1997
Mr. Larry Lombardo
148 Central Avenue
Lynbrook, NY 11563
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.
Dear Mr. Lombardo:
I have received your recent letter, which reached this office on March 17.
According to your letter, you requested records on February 27, 1996, from the Lynbrook School District. The receipt of the request was acknowledged, and you were informed that the materials would be available in sixty working days. On July 24, you were informed that the records were ready for you to pick up and that the fee for copies would be $73. You have since been informed that you cannot obtain or request additional materials until you pick up the records requested last February and pay the fee.
You have sought an advisory opinion concerning the issues described above. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, in my view, the delay in disclosure by the District constituted a denial of access to the records. However, it is unclear whether there were any communications between you and the District relative to the request. It is unknown, for example, whether, due to the passage of time, you contacted the District for the purpose of withdrawing your request, or whether the District contacted you to indicate that disclosure would be delayed beyond the sixty business day period. From my perspective, the reasonableness of the District's action would be dependent upon the facts relating to the matter.
As you may be aware, 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. The acknowledgement by the records access officer did not make reference to such a date.
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, and if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a lengthy delay in disclosure.
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied. 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)].
With respect to the matter of the fee, it has been advised that when an agency produces copies of records in response to a request but the applicant for the records has not paid the requisite fee, the agency can refuse to honor further requests until the fee is paid.
There is no judicial decision of which I am aware that is pertinent to the matter. However, when a request for copies of records is served upon an agency, both the agency and the applicant bear a responsibility. The agency is responsible for compliance with the Freedom of Information Law by retrieving the records sought and disclosing them to the extent required by law. The agency is also required to produce copies of records "[u]pon payment of, or offer to pay, the fee prescribed therefor" [see Freedom of Information Law, §89(3)]. Concurrently, if the applicant requests copies, I believe that he or she bears the responsibility of paying the appropriate fee.
If an agency has prepared copies of records in good faith and the applicant fails or refuses to pay the fee, I do not believe that the agency would be required to make available those copies that have been prepared. In my view, it follows that an agency should not be required to honor ensuing requests until the applicant has fulfilled his or her responsibility by tendering the fee for copies previously made.
Again, I am unaware of the facts in relation to the situation. In my opinion, the propriety of the District's response is dependent on its reasonableness in conjunction with the attendant facts.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Records Access Officer