January 21, 2004
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 explained your difficulty in obtaining "information regarding employees of the New York City Police Department. Specifically, [you] asked for the complete 2002 payroll, along with the badge number, home address and telephone number for each officer in the department. [You] asked for this information in electronic form, not by photocopying."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the legislative history of the Freedom of Information Law is, under the circumstances, pertinent to the matter. Since its enactment in 1974, the statute has included a requirement that agencies prepare records that identify employees by name, address, title and salary. The original version did not specify which address of a public employee, the home address or the business address, should be included in such a record. However, it did specify that neither the names nor the addresses of law enforcement officers were required to be included in the record. The current version of the Freedom of Information Law, which was enacted in 1977 and became effective in 1978, requires that each agency is required to maintain a record setting forth the name, public office address, title and salary of every officer or employee of the agency. In my view, the Legislature recognized that home addresses of public employees would, if disclosed, represent a significant infringement of privacy in some instances. Further, the home address and telephone number of an officer or employee are not generally relevant to the performance of one's official governmental duties; pertinent, however, is an employee's business or public office address. In short, it was determined by means of the legislation that agencies must prepare records that identify public officers and employees and indicate their work locations.
Second, 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.
One of the grounds for denial, §87(2)(b), permits an agency to withhold record or portions of records when disclosure would result in "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." However, payroll information has been found by the courts to be available [see e.g., Miller v. Village of Freeport, 379 NYS 2d 517, 51 AD 2d 765, (1976); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NYS 2d 954 (1978)]. Miller dealt specifically with a request by a newspaper for the names and salaries of public employees, and in Gannett, the Court of Appeals held that the identities of former employees laid off due to budget cuts, as well as current employees, should be made available. In addition, this Committee has advised and the courts have upheld the notion that records that are relevant to the performance of the official duties of public employees are generally available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible as opposed to an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [Gannett, supra; Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 109 AD 2d 292, aff'd 67 NY 2d 562 (1986) ; Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, October 30, 1980; Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); and Montes v. State, 406 NYS 664 (Court of Claims 1978)]. As stated prior to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, payroll records:
"...represent important fiscal as well as operation information. The identity of the employees and their salaries are vital statistics kept in the proper recordation of departmental functioning and are the primary sources of protection against employment favoritism. They are subject therefore to inspection" Winston v. Mangan, 338 NYS 2d 654, 664 (1972)].
In my opinion, the only exception to rights of access that could potentially be cited with respect to the information sought would be §87(2)(f). The cited provision states that an agency may withhold records or portions of records when disclosure could "endanger the life or safety of any person." In my view, disclosure of the identities and assignments of municipal employees, including law enforcement officers, would not in most instances endanger their lives or safety. Even in the case of assignments to the Office of the District Attorney, it is unlikely that disclosure of the name of every officer so assigned would pose a threat to his or her safety. In my view, §87(2)(f) would not apply with respect to disclosure of the identities of those who are not in face to face contact or "constant interaction" with the "criminal element." Further, even with respect to those who may work undercover with the criminal element, I would conjecture that they do not use their real names, display any identification that would indicate that they are law enforcement officers, or work regular business hours in carrying out their duties. If that is so, I do not believe that the City would have any justifiable basis for withholding names of the employees in question.
Third, with respect to your request for the records in electronic form, I note that in perhaps the first decision rendered under the Freedom of Information Law concerning records stored electronically, it was held that the format in which the records are maintained does not affect rights of access [Szikszay v. Buelow, 436 NYS2d, 558, 107 Misc.2d 886 (1981)]. That case involved an assessment roll that was clearly available in the traditional paper format that was found to be equally available in computer tape format.
The Freedom of Information Law has been construed expansively in relation to matters involving records stored electronically. As you may be aware, that statute pertains to agency records, and §86(4) of the Law defines the term "record" expansively to include:
"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 upon the language quoted above, if information is maintained in some physical form, it would constitute a "record" subject to rights of access conferred by the Law. Further, the definition of "record" includes specific reference to computer tapes and discs, and it was held more than twenty years ago that "[i]nformation is increasingly being stored in computers and access to such data should not be restricted merely because it is not in printed form" [Babigian v. Evans, 427 NYS 2d 688, 691 (1980); aff'd 97 AD 2d 992 (1983); see also, Szikszay v. Buelow, 436 NYS 2d 558 (1981)].
When information is maintained electronically, it has been advised that if the information sought is available under the Freedom of Information Law and may be retrieved by means of existing computer programs, an agency is required to disclose the information. In that kind of situation, the agency would merely be retrieving data that it has the capacity to retrieve. Disclosure may be accomplished either by printing out the data on paper or perhaps by duplicating the data on another storage mechanism, such as a computer tape or disc. On the other hand, if information sought can be generated only through the use of new programs, so doing would in my opinion represent the equivalent of creating a new record.
Questions and issues have arisen in relation to information maintained electronically concerning §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law, which, as suggested in the response by the Town, states in part that an agency is not required to create or prepare a record in response to a request. In this regard, often information stored electronically can be extracted by means of keystrokes or queries entered on a keyboard. While some have contended that those kinds of steps involve programming or reprogramming, and, therefore, creating a new record, so narrow a construction would tend to defeat the purposes of the Freedom of Information Law, particularly as information is increasingly being stored electronically. If electronic information can be extracted or generated with reasonable effort, if that effort involves less time and cost to the agency than engaging in manual deletions, I believe that an agency must follow the more reasonable and less costly and labor intensive course of action.
Illustrative of that principle is a case in which an applicant sought a database in a particular format, and even though the agency had the ability to generate the information in that format, it refused to make the database available in the format requested and offered to make available a printout. Transferring the data from one electronic storage medium to another involved relatively little effort and cost; preparation of a printout, however, involved approximately a million pages and a cost of ten thousand dollars for paper alone. In holding that the agency was required to make the data available in the format requested and upon payment of the actual cost of reproduction, the Court in Brownstone Publishers, Inc. v. New York City Department of Buildings unanimously held that:
"Public Officers Law [section] 87(2) provides that, 'Each agency shall...make available for public inspection and copying all records...' Section 86(4) includes in its definition of 'record', computer tapes or discs. The policy underlying the FOIL is 'to insure maximum public access to government records' (Matter of Scott, Sardano & Pomerantz v. Records Access Officer, 65 N.Y.2d 294, 296-297, 491 N.Y.S.2d 289, 480 N.E.2d 1071). Under the circumstances presented herein, it is clear that both the statute and its underlying policy require that the DOB comply with Brownstone's reasonable request to have the information, presently maintained in computer language, transferred onto computer tapes" [166 Ad 2d, 294, 295 (1990)].
In another decision which cited Brownstone, it was held that: "[a]n agency which maintains in a computer format information sought by a F.O.I.L. request may be compelled to comply with the request to transfer information to computer disks or tape" (Samuel v. Mace, Supreme Court, Monroe County, December 11, 1992).
Also potentially relevant is a decision concerning a request for records, data and reports maintained by the New York City Department of Health regarding "childhood blood-level screening levels" (New York Public Interest Research Group v. Cohen and the New York City Department of Health, Supreme Court, New York County, July 16, 2001; hereafter "NYPIRG"). The agency maintained much of the information in its "LeadQuest" database. In that case, the Court described the facts, in brief, as follows:
"...the request for information in electronic format was denied on the following grounds:
‘[S]uch records cannot be prepared in an electronic format with individual identifying information redacted, without the Department creating a unique computer program, which the Department is not required to prepare pursuant to Public Officer’s Law §89(3).’
"Instead, the agency agreed to print out the information at a cost of twenty-five cents per page, and redact the relevant confidential information by hand. Since the records consisted of approximately 50,000 pages, this would result in a charge to petitioner of $12,500."
It was conceded by an agency scientist that:
"...several months would be required to prepare a printed paper record with hand redaction of confidential information, while it would take only a few hours to program the computer to compile the same data. He also confirmed that computer redaction is less prone to error than manual redaction."
In consideration of the facts, the Court wrote that:
"The witnesses at the hearing established that DOH would only be performing queries within LeadQuest, utilizing existing programs and software. It is undisputed that providing the requested information in electronic format would save time, money, labor and other resources - maximizing the potential of the computer age.
"It makes little sense to implement computer systems that are faster and have massive capacity for storage, yet limit access to and dissemination of the material by emphasizing the physical format of a record. FOIL declares that the public is entitled to maximum access to public records [Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY2d 567, 571 (1979)]. Denying petitioner’s request based on such little inconvenience to the agency would violate this policy."
Based on the foregoing, it was concluded that:
"To sustain respondents’ positions would mean that any time the computer is programmed to provide less than all the information stored therein, a new record would have been prepared. Here all that is involved is that DOH is being asked to provide less than all of the available information. I find that in providing such limited information DOH is providing data from records ‘possessed or maintained’ by it. There is no reason to differentiate between data redacted by a computer and data redacted manually insofar as whether or not the redacted information is a record ‘possessed or maintained’ by the agency.
"Moreover, rationality is lacking for a policy that denies a FOIL request for data in electronic form when to redact the confidential information would require only a few hours, whereas to perform the redaction manually would take weeks or months (depending on the number of employees engaged), and probably would not be as accurate as computer generated redactions."
When requests involve similar considerations, in my opinion, responses to them based on the precedent offered in NYPIRG must involve the disclosure of data stored electronically for which there is no basis for a denial of access.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Jonathan David