September 8, 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.
I have received your letter and the materials attached to it. The matter involves difficulties that a constituent has encountered in his efforts in gaining access to records under the Freedom of Information Law. You have sought "assistance in determining if the FOIL has been correctly applied..."
The initial issue involves the time in which agencies, in this instance, various municipalities, respond to requests for records. One town, according to your constituent, acknowledges the receipt of requests and indicates that, in his words, "that they will make a decision after the allowable time of 30 days." In this regard, as you are likely aware, 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)].
Further, the advice rendered by this office was confirmed in Linz v. The Police Department of the City of New York (Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, December 17, 2001), in which 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, if the acknowledgement of the receipt of a request fails to include an estimated date for granting or denying access, or if the estimated date is unreasonable, 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)].
Second, and in a related vein, a village apparently will not accepts a request for records unless the request is made on its prescribed form. In this regard, although an agency may require that a request be made in writing pursuant to §89(3), there is no provision in the Freedom of Information Law that refers to the use of any particular form. Consequently, 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 discussed earlier. 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.
A standard form may, in my opinion, be utilized so long as it does not prolong the time limitations prescribed by law. 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 short, 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.
And third, a key issue involves the requirement imposed by §89(3) that an applicant must "reasonably describe" the records sought. I note that the original version of the Freedom of Information Law enacted in 1974 required that an applicant seek "identifiable" records. That standard often resulted in an impossibility, for in many instances applicants could not name or identify records sought with specificity. In its consideration of the requirement that an applicant reasonably describe records, which became effective in 1978, the Court of Appeals has held that a request meets that standard when an agency can locate and identify the records based on the terms of a request, and that to deny a request on the ground that it fails to reasonably describe the records, an agency must establish that "the descriptions were insufficient for purposes of locating and identifying the documents sought" [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 system. In Konigsberg, it appears that the agency was able to locate the records on the basis of an inmate's name and identification number, and I believe that a request would reasonably describe the records insofar as the records can be located with reasonable effort. On the other hand, if particular records cannot be located except by means of a review of what may be hundreds or thousands of records individually, the request would in my opinion not reasonably describe the records. In that event, the records access officer could explain that the records are not kept in a manner that would permit their retrieval in conjunction with the terms of the request and indicate how the records are kept.
In the context of requests made by your client, if, for example, a request is made via the identification of an address or parcel number, and if a municipality maintains records by address, locating records may be an easy task. In contrast, assuming that minutes of meetings are not indexed by subject matter but rather are kept chronologically, a request for minutes during which a particular parcel was discussed, particularly if the request does not include reference to a time period, might not reasonably describe the records. In that instance, it may be necessary to review the minutes of every meeting held over the course of years in order to locate those of interest. To avoid that kind of problem, it has been suggested that applicants attempt to become familiar with agencies' record keeping systems and that they seek records in a manner that enables agency to staff to locate the records with relative ease.
I hope that I have been of assistance. Should any questions arise, please feel free to contact me.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Edward E. Tunmer