July 25, 2003
I have received your letter in which you asked how one might "file a ‘Formal Complaint’ against a State Agency that refuses to provide information....under the Freedom of Information Act by ignoring each and every written and oral request." You added that you have been required to complete the agency’s form and indicate the reason for your requests.
In this regard, the primary function of the Committee on Open Government involves providing advice and opinions to any person having questions involving public access to government information in New York. While the advisory opinions provided by this office are not binding, it is our hope that they are educational and persuasive and that they encourage compliance with law. You may submit a complaint, therefore, to this office, and I can prepare an advisory opinion and send a copy to the agency to which your requests were made.
Based on the nature of the difficulty described in your letter, I offer the following additional remarks.
First, an agency may, pursuant to §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law, require that a request be made in writing. The same provision states that an applicant must "reasonably describe" the records sought. Consequently, a request should include sufficient detail to enable agency staff to locate and identify the records.
Second, 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.
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, or if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a lengthy delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals has asserted:
"...the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such objectives cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to bring them about permeate the body politic to a point where they become the rule rather than the exception. The phrase 'public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' therefore merely punctuates with explicitness what in any event is implicit" [Westchester News v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 579 (1980)].
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)].
Third, I do not believe that an agency can require that a request be made on a prescribed form. As indicated previously, §89(3) of the law, as well as the regulations promulgated by the Committee (21 NYCRR §1401.5), require that an agency respond to a request that reasonably describes the record sought within five business days of the receipt of a request. Neither the law nor the regulations refers to, requires or authorizes the use of standard forms. Accordingly, it has consistently been advised that any written request that reasonably describes the records sought should suffice.
It has also been advised that a failure to complete a form prescribed by an agency cannot serve to delay a response or deny a request for records. A delay due to a failure to use a prescribed form might result in an inconsistency with the time limitations imposed by the Freedom of Information Law. For example, assume that an individual requests a record in writing from an agency and that the agency responds by directing that a standard form must be submitted. By the time the individual submits the form, and the agency processes and responds to the request, it is probable that more than five business days would have elapsed, particularly if a form is sent by mail and returned to the agency by mail. Therefore, to the extent that an agency's response granting, denying or acknowledging the receipt of a request is given more than five business days following the initial receipt of the written request, the agency, in my opinion, would have failed to comply with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Law.
While the Law does not preclude an agency from developing a standard form, as suggested earlier, I do not believe that a failure to use such a form can be used to delay a response to a written request for records reasonably described beyond the statutory period. However, a standard form may, in my opinion, be utilized so long as it does not prolong the time limitations discussed above. For instance, a standard form could be completed by a requester while his or her written request is timely processed by the agency. In addition, an individual who appears at a government office and makes an oral request for records could be asked to complete the standard form as his or her written request.
In sum, it is my opinion that the use of standard forms is inappropriate to the extent that is unnecessarily serves to delay a response to or deny a request for records.
Lastly, the reason for which a request is made generally has no bearing or effect on rights of access. 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, the State's highest court, 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 NY2d 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 intended use of records is in my opinion generally irrelevant.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman