As you are aware, I have received your letter of May 13. You indicated that your requests for records of the New York City Housing Authority "have turned up as exhibits submitted by them in a pending lawsuit." You have questioned the propriety of those disclosures by the Authority.
In this regard, as a general matter, 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. From my perspective, with the exception of portions of certain kinds of requests, the records in question would be accessible to the public under the law.
In my view, the only instances in which the records at issue may be withheld in part would involve situations in which, due to the nature of their contents, disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" [see Freedom of Information Law, §§87(2)(b) and 89(2)]. For instance, if a recipient of public assistance seeks records pertaining to his or her participation in a public assistance program, disclosure of the request would itself indicate that he or she has received public assistance. In that case, I believe that identifying details could be deleted to protect against an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
As stated by the Court of Appeals, the exception in the Freedom of Information Law pertaining to the protection of personal privacy involves details about one's life "that would ordinarily and reasonably be regarded as intimate, private information" [Hanig v. State Department of Motor Vehicles, 79 NY2d 106, 112 (1992)]. In most instances, a request or the correspondence pertaining to it between the agency and the applicant for records does not include intimate information about the applicant. For example, if a request is made for an agency's budget, the minutes of a meeting of a community board, or an agency's contract to purchase goods or services, the request typically includes nothing of an intimate nature about the applicant. Further, many requests are made by firms, associations, or persons representing business entities. In those cases, it is clear that there is nothing "personal" about the requests, for they are made by persons acting in a business or similar capacity (see e.g., American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals v. NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, Supreme Court, Albany County, Nay 10, 1989; Newsday v. NYS Department of Health, Supreme Court, Albany County, October 15, 1991).
Lastly, the Freedom of Information Law is permissive; even in situations in which an agency may withhold records or portions of records, it is not obliged to do so [see Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY2d 562, 567 (1986)]. Therefore, even if the Authority could withhold the records on the ground that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see §87(2)(b)], it would not be required to do so.
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
cc: Lawrence Roth