April 7, 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 facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter in which you sought my views concerning a request made to the Village of Cedarhurst for "an electronic copy of the town's [sic] latest assessment roll." The request was denied by the Village Attorney, who, according to your letter, "claimed that such a release would violate the 'no commercial' usage of such data."
In this regard, first, 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.
Second, as a general matter, when records are accessible under the Freedom of Information Law, it has been held that they should be made equally available to any person, regardless of one's status, interest or the intended use of the records [see Burke v. Yudelson, 368 NYS 2d 779, aff'd 51 AD 2d 673, 378 NYS 2d 165 (1976)]. Moreover, the Court of Appeals has held that:
"FOIL does not require that the party requesting records make any showing of need, good faith or legitimate purpose; while its purpose may be to shed light on government decision-making, its ambit is not confined to records actually used in the decision-making process. (Matter of Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY 2d 575, 581.) Full disclosure by public agencies is, under FOIL, a public right and in the public interest, irrespective of the status or need of the person making the request" [Farbman v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984)].
Farbman pertained to a situation in which a person involved in litigation against an agency requested records from that agency under the Freedom of Information Law. In brief, it was found that one's status as a litigant had no effect upon that person's right as a member of the public when using the Freedom of Information Law, irrespective of the intended use of the records. Similarly, unless there is a basis for withholding records in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2), the use of the records, including the potential for commercial use or fund-raising, is in my opinion irrelevant; when records are accessible, once they are disclosed, the recipient may do with the records as he or she sees fit.
The only aspect of the Freedom of Information Law that involves the ability to deny access based on the intended use of the records, 89(2)(b)(iii), represents what might be viewed as an internal conflict in the law. As indicated above, the status of an applicant or the purposes for which a request is made are irrelevant to rights of access, and an agency cannot inquire as to the intended use of records. The cited provision states that an agency may withhold records when disclosure would constitute an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy", and that an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy includes the "sale or release of lists of names and addresses if such lists would be used for commercial or fund-raising purposes." Due to the language of §89(2)(b)(iii), rights of access to a list of names and addresses, or equivalent records, may be contingent upon the purpose for which a request is made [see Scott, Sardano & Pomeranz v. Records Access Officer of Syracuse, 65 NY 2d 294, 491 NYS 2d 289 (1985); Federation of New York State Rifle and Pistol Clubs, Inc. v. New York City Police Dept., 73 NY 2d 92 (1989); Goodstein v. Shaw, 463 NYS 2d 162 (1983)]. However, for reasons to be considered in detail, §89(2)(b)(iii) is, according to judicial decisions, inapplicable with respect to a request for an assessment roll.
Long before the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, it was established by the courts that records pertaining to the assessment of real property are generally available [see e.g., Sears Roebuck & Co. v. Hoyt, 107 NYS 2d 756 (1951); Sanchez v. Papontas, 32 AD 2d 948 (1969), including assessment rolls. Moreover, even though the Freedom of Information Law authorizes an agency to withhold a list of names and addresses if the list is requested for commercial or fund-raising purposes, in a decision rendered more than twenty years ago, it was held that assessment rolls are accessible even though the request was made for a commercial purpose.
Section 89(6) of the Freedom of Information Law provides that records available under a different provision of law remain available, notwithstanding the grounds for denial of access appearing in the Freedom of Information Law. In Szikszay v. Buelow [436 NYS 2d 558 (1981)],the court found that assessment rolls or equivalent records are public records and were public before the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law. Specifically, it was found that:
"An assessment roll is a public record (Real Property Tax Law [section] 516 subd. 2; General Municipal Law [section] 51; County Law [section] 208 subd. 4). It must contain the name and mailing or billing address of the owner of the parcel (Real Property Tax Law [sections] 502, 504, 9 NYCRR [section] 190-1(6)(1)). Such records are open to public inspection and copying except as otherwise provided by law (General Municipal Law [section] 51; County Law [section] 208 subd. 4). Even prior to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, and under its predecessor, Public Officers Law [section] 66, repealed L.1974, c. 578, assessment rolls and related records were treated as public records, open to public inspection and copying (Sanchez v. Papontas, 32 A.D.2d 948, 303 N.Y.S.2d 711, Sears Roebuck & Co. v. Hoyt, 202 Misc. 43, 107 N.Y.S.2d 756; Ops. State Comptroller 1967, p. 596)" (id. at 562, 563).
In consideration of the issue of privacy and citing the provision dealing with lists of names and addresses, it was held that:
"The Freedom of Information Law limits access to records where disclosure would constitute 'an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy' (Public Officers Law [section] 87 subd. 2(b), [section] 89 subd. 2(b)iii). In view of the history of public access to assessment records, and the continued availability of such records to public inspection, whatever invasion of privacy may result by providing copies of A.R.L.M. computer tapes to petitioner would appear to be permissible rather than 'unwarranted' (cf. Advisory Opns. of Committee on Public Access to Records, June 12, 1979, FOIL-AO-1164). In addition, considering the legislative purpose behind the Freedom of Information Law, it would be anomalous to permit the statute to be used as a shield by government to prevent disclosure. In this regard, Public Officers Law [section] 89 subd. 5 specifically provides: 'Nothing in this article shall be construed to limit or abridge any otherwise available right of access at law or in equity of any party to records.'" [id. at 563; now section 89(6)].
The court stated further that:
"...the records in question can be viewed by any person and presumably copies of portions obtained, simply by walking into the appropriate county, city, or town office. It appears that petitioner could obtain the information he seeks if he wanted to spend the time to go through the records manually and copy the necessary information. Therefore, the balancing of interests, otherwise required, between the right of individual privacy on the one hand and the public interest in dissemination of information on the other...need not be undertaken...
"Assessment records are public information pursuant to other provisions of law and have been for sometime. The form of the records and petitioner' s purpose in seeking them do not alter their public character or petitioner's concomitant right to inspect and copy" (id.).
Based upon the foregoing, I believe that an assessment roll or its equivalent must be disclosed, irrespective of the intended use of that record. I point out that the same conclusion was reached by Supreme Court in Nassau County in an unreported decision [Real Estate Data, Inc. v. County of Nassau, Supreme Court, Nassau County, September 18, 1981].
Lastly, §86(4) of the Freedom of Information Law defines the term "record" expansively to include:
"any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."
Based upon the language quoted above, if information is maintained in some physical form, it would in my opinion constitute a "record" subject to rights of access conferred by the Law. Further, the definition of "record" includes specific reference to computer tapes and discs, and it was held more than ten years ago that "[i]nformation is increasingly being stored in computers and access to such data should not be restricted merely because it is not in printed form" [Babigian v. Evans, 427 NYS 2d 688, 691 (1980); aff'd 97 AD 2d 992 (1983); see also, Szikszay v. Buelow, supra.
When information is maintained electronically, in a computer, for example, it has been advised that if the information sought is available under the Freedom of Information Law and may be retrieved by means of existing computer programs, an agency is required to disclose the information. In that kind of situation, the agency in my view would merely be retrieving data that it has the capacity to retrieve. Disclosure may be accomplished either by printing out the data on paper or perhaps by duplicating the data on another storage mechanism, such as a computer tape or disk.
In one decision, Brownstone Publishers Inc. v. New York City Department of Buildings, the question involved an agency's obligation to transfer electronic information from one electronic storage medium to another when it had the technical capacity to do so and when the applicant was willing to pay the actual cost of the transfer. As stated by the Appellate Division:
"The files are maintained in a computer format that Brownstone can employ directly into its system, which can be reproduced on computer tapes at minimal cost in a few hours time-a cost Brownstone agreed to assume (see, POL [section] 87 [b] [iii]). The DOB, apparently intending to discourage this and similar requests, agreed to provide the information only in hard copy, i.e., printed out on over a million sheets of paper, at a cost of $10,000 for the paper alone, which would take five or six weeks to complete. Brownstone would then have to reconvert the data into computer-usable form at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Public Officers Law [section] 87(2) provides that, 'Each agency shall...make available for public inspection and copying all records...' Section 86(4) includes in its definition of 'record', computer tapes or discs. The policy underlying the FOIL is 'to insure maximum public access to government records' (Matter of Scott, Sardano & Pomerantz v. Records Access Officer, 65 N.Y.2d 294, 296-297, 491 N.Y.S.2d 289, 480 N.E.2d 1071). Under the circumstances presented herein, it is clear that both the statute and its underlying policy require that the DOB comply with Brownstone's reasonable request to have the information, presently maintained in computer language, transferred onto computer tapes" [166 Ad 2d, 294, 295 (1990)].
Further, in a more recent decision that cited Brownstone, it was held that: "[a]n agency which maintains in a computer format information sought by a F.O.I.L. request may be compelled to comply with the request to transfer information to computer disks or tape" (Samuel v. Mace, Supreme Court, Monroe County, December 11, 1992).
In Szikszay, the decision discussed earlier, the request was for an assessment roll on computer tape, and, as indicated earlier, the court determined that the record is available, regardless of the format in which it is maintained or can be reproduced.
In sum, I believe that an assessment roll is accessible to the public, irrespective of its intended use, and that an agency must make a copy available in an electronic form when it has the ability to do so.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of applicable law, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to Village officials. I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Trustees, Village of Cedarhurst
Jerome J. Levenberg