March 24, 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 information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter of February 25 in which you sought an advisory opinion concerning requests for certain records of a school district that you represent.
The requests involve "correspondence and communications" pertaining to two grievances initiated against the district by a teachers’ association. The only records falling within the scope of the requests at this juncture are grievance forms, responses by administrators denying the grievances, and letters of appeal by the teachers’ association. The grievances relate to "Parent Teacher Conference Day" and a "Detailed Lesson Plan."
You wrote that the district "would be inclined to grant the FOIL request, but for" a provision in the teachers contract stating that:
"The Chief Executive Officer shall be responsible for accumulating and maintaining an Official Grievance Record which shall consist of the written grievance, all exhibits, transcripts, communications, minutes and/or notes of testimony, as the case may be, written arguments and briefs considered at all levels other than Stage 1A and all written decisions at all stages. ... The Official Grievance Record shall be available for inspection and/or copying by the Aggrieved Party, the Grievance Committee, and the Board, but shall not be deemed a public record" [emphasis yours].
From my perspective, insofar as a contractual provision limits rights of access conferred by a statute, such as the Freedom of Information Law, it is void and unenforceable.
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.
The Court of Appeals has held that a request for or a guarantee of confidentiality is all but meaningless; unless one or more of the grounds for denial appearing in the Freedom of Information Law may appropriately be asserted, the record sought must be made available. In Washington Post v. Insurance Department [61 NY2d 557 (1984)], the controversy involved a claim of confidentiality with respect to records prepared by corporate boards furnished voluntarily to a state agency. The Court also concluded that "just as promises of confidentiality by the Department do not affect the status of documents as records, neither do they affect the applicability of any exemption" (id., 567).
In a different context, in Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons (Supreme Court, Wayne County, March 25, 1981), a public employee charged with misconduct and in the process of an arbitration hearing engaged in a settlement agreement with a municipality. One aspect of the settlement was an agreement to the effect that its terms would remain confidential. Notwithstanding the agreement of confidentiality, which apparently was based on an assertion that "the public interest is benefited by maintaining harmonious relationships between government and its employees", the court found that no ground for denial could justifiably be cited to withhold the agreement. On the contrary, it was determined that:
"the citizen's right to know that public servants are held accountable when they abuse the public trust outweighs any advantage that would accrue to municipalities were they able to negotiate disciplinary matters with its employee with the power to suppress the terms of any settlement".
In so holding, the court cited a decision rendered by the Court of Appeals and stated that:
"In Board of Education v. Areman, (41 NY2d 527), the Court of Appeals in concluding that a provision in a collective bargaining agreement which bargained away the board of education' s right to inspect personnel files was unenforceable as contrary to statutes and public policy stated: 'Boards of education are but representatives of the public interest and the public interest must, certainly at times, bind these representatives and limit or restrict their power to, in turn, bind the public which they represent. (at p. 531).
"A similar restriction on the power of the representatives for the Village of Lyons to compromise the public right to inspect public records operates in this instance.
"The agreement to conceal the terms of this settlement is contrary to the FOIL unless there is a specific exemption from disclosure. Without one, the agreement is invalid insofar as restricting the right of the public to access."
In this instance, the element of the contract to which you referred created an exception to rights of access that does not exist in the Freedom of Information Law. That being so, again, I believe that it is invalid and unenforceable. Moreover, a review of the exceptions to rights of access appearing in §87(2) of the Freedom of Information Law indicates, in my view, that none could justifiably be asserted.
In short, notwithstanding the language of the contract, I believe that the records at issue must be disclosed to any person seeking them pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman