October 21, 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 letters and related materials pertaining to your requests for records of the Port Jervis School District. Although some of the records sought were determined to be accessible, you have been informed that time sheets and "absence verification summary sheets" identifiable to employees "represent a confidential part of personnel files." You enclosed samples of those records, which include dates of attendance, time in and out, hours worked or accumulated, and the amount and nature of leave claimed, i.e., sick, vacation or personal leave.
Based on a unanimous decision rendered by the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, the records in question must be disclosed to comply with law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
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.
Section 87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law authorizes an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy", and the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public employees. According to those decisions, it is clear that public employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public employees are required to be more accountable than others. With regard to records pertaining to public employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a public employee' s official duties are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NY 2d 954 (1978); Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty., March 25, 1981; Montes v. State, 406 NYS 2d 664 (Court of Claims, 1978); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)]. Conversely, to the extent that records are irrelevant to the performance of one's official duties, it has been found that disclosure would indeed constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Matter of Wool, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., NYLJ, Nov. 22, 1977].
One of the decisions referenced above, Capital Newspapers v. Burns, involved a request for records reflective of the days and dates of sick leave claimed by a particular municipal police officer, and in granting access, the Court of Appeals found that the public has both economic and safety reasons for knowing when public employees perform their duties and whether they carry out those duties when scheduled to do so. As such, attendance records, including those involving overtime work, are in my opinion clearly available, for they are relevant to the performance of public employees' official duties. Similarly, I believe that records reflective of leave used or accrued must be disclosed, for the public has an economic interest in obtaining those records and because the records are relevant to the performance of public employees' official duties.
In affirming the Appellate Division decision in Capital Newspapers, the Court of Appeals found that:
"The Freedom of Information Law expresses this State's strong commitment to open government and public accountability and imposes a broad standard of disclosure upon the State and its agencies (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v New York City Health and Hosps. Corp., 62 NY 2d 75, 79). The statute, enacted in furtherance of the public's vested and inherent 'right to know', affords all citizens the means to obtain information concerning the day-to-day functioning of State and local government thus providing the electorate with sufficient information 'to make intelligent, informed choices with respect to both the direction and scope of governmental activities' and with an effective tool for exposing waste, negligence and abuse on the part of government officers" (Capital Newspapers v. Burns, supra, 565-566).
Based on the preceding analysis, it is clear in my view that the records at issue must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Law.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, copies of this opinion will be sent to District officials.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Education
Richard K. Roberts