September 10, 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 questioned the ability of a municipality to deny access to a legal opinion prepared by a town attorney when the issue considered is unrelated to either ongoing or threatened litigation.
From my perspective, the pendency of litigation is not determinative of the ability to deny access. There are numerous instances in which attorneys render legal advice that is confidential, based on the attorney-client privilege, even though there is neither actual nor potential litigation. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
As you are aware, 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. Two of the grounds for denial are pertinent to an analysis of rights of access.
The first ground for denial, §87(2)(a), pertains to records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." For more than a century, the courts have found that legal advice given by a municipal attorney to his or her clients, municipal officials, is privileged when it is prepared in conjunction with an attorney-client relationship [see e.g., People ex rel. Updyke v. Gilon, 9 NYS 243, 244 (1889); Pennock v. Lane, 231 NYS 2d 897, 898, (1962); Bernkrant v. City Rent and Rehabilitation Administration, 242 NYS 2d 752 (1963), aff'd 17 App. Div. 2d 392]. As such, I believe that a municipal attorney may engage in a privileged relationship with his client and that records prepared in conjunction with an attorney-client relationship are considered privileged under §4503 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Further, since the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, it has been found that records may be withheld when the privilege can appropriately be asserted when the attorney-client privilege is read in conjunction with §87(2)(a) of the Law [see e.g., Mid-Boro Medical Group v. New York City Department of Finance, Sup. Ct., Bronx Cty., NYLJ, December 7, 1979; Steele v. NYS Department of Health, 464 NY 2d 925 (1983)]. Similarly, the work product of an attorney may be confidential under §3101(c) of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. In my view, there need not be litigation for there to be an attorney-client relationship or to assert the attorney-client privilege.
In a discussion of the parameters of the attorney-client relationship and the conditions precedent to its initiation, it has been held that:
"In general, 'the privilege applies only if (1) the asserted holder of the privilege is or sought to become a client; (2) the person to whom the communication was made (a) is a member of the bar of a court, or his subordinate and (b) in connection with this communication relates to a fact of which the attorney was informed (a) by his client (b) without the presence of strangers (c) for the purpose of securing primarily either (i) an opinion on law or (ii) legal services (iii) assistance in some legal proceeding, and not (d) for the purpose of committing a crime or tort; and (4) the privilege has been (a) claimed and (b) not waived by the client'" [People v. Belge, 59 AD 2d 307, 399 NYS 2d 539, 540 (1977)].
Based on the foregoing, assuming that the privilege has not been intelligently and purposely waived, and that records consist of legal advice or opinion provided by counsel to the client, such records would be confidential pursuant to §4503 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules and, therefore, exempted from disclosure under §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law.
The other ground for denial of potential significance, §87(2)(g), permits an agency to withhold records that:
"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:
i. statistical or factual tabulations or data;
ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;
iii. final agency policy or determinations; or
iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."
It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter- agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld. It would appear that the record in question consists of an expression of opinion. If that is so, it could be withheld under §87(2)(g).
I hope that the foregoing serves to clarify your understanding of the matter and that I have been of assistance. Sincerely,
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Edgar M. Masters
Nelson R. Alford, Jr., Esq.