February 24, 2003
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, unless otherwise indicated.
Dear I have received your letter of February 2 and the materials attached to it. Once again, you have alleged that the Town of North Hempstead has failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Law. I note that I have discussed your requests at length with both the Town Attorney, Ms. Chaikin, and the Town's Records Access Officer, Ms. Zuech, and that I believe that both have seriously attempted to comply with law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, although you contend that a determination concerning a request for records "should not be decided arbitrarily by Town employees; it should be decided by the Records Access Officer..." In this regard, I point out that the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government (21 NYCRR Part 1401) state that the records access officer has the duty of "coordinating" an agency's response to requests; the regulations do not require that the records access officer "decide" what may be available or deniable.
Similarly, you wrote that when you request a certification from the Records Access Officer, "she should make such certification to [you]" (emphasis yours). Neither the Freedom of Information Law nor the Committee's regulations specifies who should prepare the certification envisioned in §89(3). The regulations, in fact, provide that the records access officer "is responsible for assuring that agency personnel....Upon failure to locate records, certify that: (i) the agency is not the custodian for such records; or (ii) the records of which the agency is a custodian cannot be found after diligent search" [§1401.2(b)(6)].
Second, the "subject matter list" required to be maintained under §87(3)(c) is not, in my opinion, required to identify each and every record of an agency; rather I believe that it must refer, by category and in reasonable detail, to the kinds of records maintained by an agency. I emphasize that §87(3)(c) does not require that an agency ascertain which among its records must be made available or may be withheld. Again, the law states that the subject matter list must refer, in reasonable detail, to the kinds of records maintained by an agency, whether or not they are available.
As indicated by Town officials, it has been suggested that the records retention and disposal schedules developed by the State Archives and Records Administration at the State Education Department may be used as a substitute for the subject matter list. You may request a copy of the schedule from the Town or the State Archives and Records Administration by calling (518)474- 6926.
Third, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) 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)].
Lastly, with respect to the requirement that a request "reasonably describe" the records sought, the State's highest court has found that requested records need not be "specifically designated", that to meet the standard, the terms of a request must be adequate to enable the agency to locate the records, and that an agency must "establish that 'the descriptions were insufficient for purposes of locating and identifying the documents sought'...before denying a FOIL request for reasons of overbreadth" [Konigsberg v. Coughlin, 68 NY 2d 245, 249 (1986)].
Although it was found in the decision cited above that the agency could not reject the request due to its breadth, it was 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 systems. 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, I am unaware of the means by which the Town maintains records relating to a particular parcel. If the Town maintains all such records in a file or group of files that are retrievable on the basis of the terms of your request, I believe that you would have met the requirements that the records be reasonably described. On the other hand, however, it is possible that the Town maintains records falling within the scope of your request in a number of locations or departments and by means of different filing systems within those departments. It is possible, for example, that your request may involve records of the Town Clerk, building inspector, code enforcement officer, the police and fire Departments, as well as the departments of public works, traffic, water, and perhaps others. If indeed the records sought are kept by a variety of agencies and by means of a variety of filing methods, a request by address and parcel number may not be adequate in every instance to locate records relating to the parcel. In that kind of situation, I do not believe that a request would meet the standard of reasonably describing the records.
I hope that the foregoing serves to clarify your understanding of the Freedom of Information Law and that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman Executive Director
cc: Bonnie P. Chaikin Linda B. Zuech