July 3, 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 of June 13 concerning the "Applicability of Open Meetings Law and FOIL to Settlement Agreements with Greene County." Specifically, you raised the following question:
"May a County keep the details of the settlement of a lawsuit by the County against another when the litigation has been authorized by Legislative resolution but not actually commenced?"
You added that "[a]n exchange of mutual releases is expected but no other documents would be generated."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records, and §89(3) states in part that "[n]othing in this article shall be construed to require any entity to prepare any record not possessed or maintained by such entity..." Also significant is §86(4), which defines the term "record" to mean:
"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 on the foregoing, information existing in a physical form maintained by or for the County would constitute a record that falls within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. If, however, information does not exist in the form of a record or records, that statute would not be applicable.
Second, situations have arisen in which the parties to an agreement or stipulation of settlement have agreed to refrain from speaking about or disclosing the terms of the agreement or stipulation on their own initiative. In my view, the parties may validly agree not to speak about a settlement or agreement. However, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to records, not to speech. In a decision that may be pertinent to the matter that you described, Paul Smith's College of Arts and Sciences v. Cuomo, it was stated that:
"Plaintiff was the subject of a complaint made by a former employee who alleged that he was a victim of age discrimination. Prior to a scheduled hearing and with the assistance of an employee of defendant State Division of Human Rights (hereinafter SDHR), plaintiff entered into a stipulation of settlement with the complaining employee. Plaintiff's stated purpose for settling was to eliminate any negative publicity resulting from a public hearing on the allegations. The order after stipulation signed by defendant Commissioner of Human Rights on August 23, 1989 provided for absolute confidentiality except for enforcement purposes. The order also provided for the withdrawal of the charges and discontinuance of the administrative proceeding. Plaintiff did not admit to a Human Rights violation. On October 27, 1989, SDHR issued a press release detailing the allegations, disclosing that the matter hade been settled and set forth certain parts of the settlement terms" [589 NYS2d 106,107, 186 AD2d 888 (1992)].
Although the Appellate Division determined that the issuance of the press release "was both arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion" (id.), it also found that the stipulation of settlement was subject to rights of access conferred by the Freedom of Information Law.
I note that it has been held in variety of circumstances that a promise or assertion of confidentiality cannot be upheld, unless a statute specifically confers confidentiality. In Gannett News Service v. Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services [415 NYS 2d 780 (1979)], a state agency guaranteed confidentiality to school districts participating in a statistical survey concerning drug abuse. The court determined that the promise of confidentiality could not be sustained, and that the records were available, for none of the grounds for denial appearing in the Freedom of Information Law could justifiably be asserted. In a decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, it was held that a state agency's:
"long-standing promise of confidentiality to the intervenors is irrelevant to whether the requested documents fit within the Legislature's definition of 'record' under FOIL. The definition does not exclude or make any reference to information labeled as 'confidential' by the agency; confidentiality is relevant only when determining whether the record or a portion of it is exempt..." [Washington Post v. Insurance Department, 61 NY 2d 557, 565 (1984)].
Third, I believe that, insofar as it exists in the form of a record or records, a settlement or similar agreement must be disclosed. 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. Unless records may justifiably be withheld in accordance with one or more of the grounds for denial, a claim, a promise or an agreement to maintain confidentiality would, based on judicial decisions, be meaningless.
In Geneva Printing Co. v. Village of Lyons (Supreme Court, Wayne County, March 25, 1981), a public employee charged with misconduct and in the process of an arbitration hearing engaged in a settlement agreement with a municipality. One aspect of the settlement was an agreement to the effect that its terms would remain confidential. Notwithstanding the agreement of confidentiality, the court found that no ground for denial could justifiably be cited to withhold the agreement.
It was also found that the record indicating the terms of the settlement constituted a final agency determination available under the Freedom of Information Law [ see FOIL, §87(2)(g)(iii)].
In another decision, the matter involved the subject of a settlement agreement with a town that included a confidentiality clause who brought suit against the town for disclosing the agreement under the Freedom of Information Law. In considering the matter, the court stated that:
"Plaintiff argues that provisions of FOIL did not mandate disclosure in this instance. However, it is clear that any attempt to conceal the financial terms of this expenditure would violate the Legislative declaration of §84 of the Public Officer's Law, as it would conceal access to information regarding expenditure of public monies.
"Although exceptions to disclosure are provided in §§87 and 89, plaintiff has not met his burden of demonstrating that the financial provisions of this agreement fit within one of these statutory exceptions (see Matter of Washington Post v New York State Ins. Dept. 61 NY2d 557, 566). While partially recognized in Matter of LaRocca v Bd. of Education, 220 AD2d 424, those narrowly defined exceptions are not relevant to defendants' disclosure of the terms of a financial settlement (see Matter of Western Suffolk BOCES v Bay Shore Union Free School District, ___AD2d___ 672 NYS2d 776). There is no question that defendants lacked the authority to subvert FOIL by exempting information from the enactment by simply promising confidentiality (Matter of Washington Post, supra p567).
"Therefore, this Court finds that the disclosure made by the defendant Supervisor was 'required by law', whether or not the contract so provided" (Hansen v. Town of Wallkill, Supreme Court, Orange County, December 9, 1998).
In short, absent the assertion of a ground for denial appearing in §87(2) of the Freedom of Information Law, and none in my view would apply, I believe that a record reflective of a settlement must be disclosed in response to a request made under the Freedom of Information Law, notwithstanding any condition regarding confidentiality in the agreement.
With respect to the "Applicability of the Open Meetings Law", it appears that only issue of significance involves minutes and the extent to which information regarding settlement agreements must be included. Section 106 of that statute pertains to minutes and provides that:
"1. Minutes shall be taken at all open meetings of a public body which shall consist of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon.
2. Minutes shall be taken at executive sessions of any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon; provided, however, that such summary need not include any matter which is not required to be made public by the freedom of information law as added by article six of this chapter.
3. Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meetings except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session."
In view of the foregoing, as a general rule, a public body may take action during a properly convened executive session [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)]. If action is taken during an executive session, minutes reflective of the action, the date and the vote must be recorded in minutes pursuant to §106(2) of the Law. If no action is taken, there is no requirement that minutes of the executive session be prepared.
It is noted that minutes of executive sessions need not include information that may be withheld under the Freedom of Information Law. From my perspective, when a public body makes a final determination during an executive session, that determination will, in most instances, be public. For example, although a discussion to hire or fire a particular employee could clearly be discussed during an executive session [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)(f), a determination to hire or fire that person would be recorded in minutes and would be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law. On other hand, if a public body votes to initiate a disciplinary proceeding against a public employee, minutes reflective of its action would not have include reference to or identify the person, for the Freedom of Information Law authorizes an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would result in an unwarranted personal privacy [see Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(b)].
In this instance, I believe that the minutes of the County Legislature must indicate in general terms that settlements were reached or approved; I do not believe they are required to include a detailed description of a settlement.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman