October 25, 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 concerning rights of access to certain records under the Freedom of Information Law. The matter involves access to "disqualification letters that [you] sent to an eligible on a civil service list and the material that [you] relied upon to disqualify that person..."
According to your letter, you "disqualified an eligible from a civil service list for a public safety position based on the person’s documented and admitted unauthorized intrusions into an adjacent county’s 911 system." You provided the eligible "with a written notice that outlined the reasons that [you] proposed to disqualify him from further certification from the civil service list, provided him with an opportunity to object", and "used a detailed investigative report prepared by administrative staff from the Sheriff’s Department as well as the eligible’s own signed Miranda statement as substantiation/documentation for the disqualification." Despite having received an opportunity to object to his disqualification or the reasons for seeking to do so, the eligible "failed to respond with any objection" and his name was "removed...from further certification from the eligible list."
Although an opinion was given to you by phone that the records in question would be accessible "because [you] had substantiation of the allegations against the eligible", you asked that I confirm that opinion in writing. 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.
From my perspective, it appears that three of the grounds for denial of access are pertinent to an analysis of the matter. None of them, however, would appear to justify such a denial.
I note that there is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that deals specifically with personnel records or personnel files. Further, the nature and content of so-called personnel files may differ from one agency to another, and from one employee to another. In any case, neither the characterization of documents as "personnel records" nor their placement in personnel files would necessarily render those documents "confidential" or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law (see Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980). On the contrary, the contents of those documents serve as the relevant factors in determining the extent to which they are available or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law.
Perhaps of greatest significance is §87(2)(b), which permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy". In addition, §89(2)(b) provides a series of examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy.
While the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public officers employees. It is clear that public officers and employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public officers and employees are required to be more accountable than others. With regard to records pertaining to public officers and employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a their 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); Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); Scaccia v. NYS Division of State Police, 530 NYS 2d 309, 138 AD 2d 50 (1988); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, supra; 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].
A second ground for denial of significance, §87(2)(g), states that an agency may 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. Insofar as a request involves a final agency determination, I believe that such a determination must be disclosed, again, unless a different ground for denial could be asserted.
In terms of the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law, I point out that in situations in a public employee is the subject of a written reprimand, disciplinary action, findings or admission that a public employee has engaged in misconduct, records reflective of those kinds of determinations have been found to be available, including the names of those employees [see Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); also Farrell, Geneva Printing, Scaccia and Sinicropi, supra].
In a decision involving a settlement agreement between a school district and a teacher, it was held in Anonymous v. Board of Education [616 NYS 2d 867 (1994)] that:
"...it is disingenuous for petitioner to argue that public disclosure is permissible...only where an employee is found guilty of a specific charge. The settlement agreement at issue in the instant case contains the petitioner's express admission of guilt to a number of charges and specifications. This court does not perceive the distinction between a finding of guilt after a hearing and an admission of guilt insofar as protection from disclosure is concerned" (id., 870).
The court also referred to contentions involving privacy as follows:
"Petitioner contends that disclosure of the terms of the settlement at issue in this case would constitute an unwarranted invasion of his privacy prohibited by Public Officers Law § 87(2)(b). Public Officers Law § 89(2)(b) defines an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy as, in pertinent part, '(i) disclosure of employment, medical or credit histories or personal references of applicants for employment.' Petitioner argues that the agreement itself provides that it shall become part of his personnel file and that material in his personnel file is exempt from disclosure..." (id.).
In response to those contentions, the decision stated that:
"This court rejects that conclusion as establishing an exemption from disclosure not created by statute (Public Officers Law § 87[a]), and not within the contemplation of the 'employment, medical or credit history' language found under the definition of 'unwarranted invasion of personal privacy' at Public Officers Law § 89(2)(b)(i). In fact, the information sought in the instant case, i.e., the terms of settlement of charges of misconduct lodged against a teacher by the Board of Education, is not information in which petitioner has any reasonable expectation of privacy where the agreement contains the teacher's admission to much of the misconduct charged. The agreement does not contain details of the petitioner's personal history-but it does contain the details of admitted misconduct toward students, as well as the agreed penalty. The information is clearly of significant interest to the public, insofar as it is a final determination and disposition of matters within the work of the Board of Education and reveals the process of and basis for government decision-making. This is not a case where petitioner is to be protected from possible harm to his professional reputation from unfounded accusations (Johnson Newspaper Corp. v. Melino, 77 N.Y.2d 1, 563 N.Y.S.2d 380, 564 N.E.ed 1046), for this court regards the petitioner's admission to the conduct described in the agreement as the equivalent of founded accusations. As such, the agreement is tantamount to a final agency determination not falling within the privacy exemption of FOIL 'since it was not a disclosure of employment history.'" (id., 871).
As the foregoing relates to the facts that you presented, the acceptance by eligible to the reasons for his disqualification by virtue of his silence, his failure to object, in my view would constitute an admission of misconduct. That being so, I believe that the disqualification constitutes a final agency determination accessible under paragraph (iii) of §87(2)(g), and that disclosure of such admission would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
The remaining exception of possible significance, §87(2)(e), authorizes an agency to withhold records that:
"are compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would:
i. interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings;
ii. deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication;
iii. identify a confidential source or disclose confidential information relating to a criminal investigation; or
iv. reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures, except routine techniques and procedures."
In my view, the foregoing indicates that records compiled for law enforcement purposes can only be withheld to the extent that disclosure would result in the harmful effects described in sub- paragraphs (i) through (iv) of §87(2)(e). If my understanding of the situation is accurate, there will be no prosecution or other judicial proceeding. If that is so, §87(2)(e) would not serve as a basis for a denial of access.
Lastly, it is emphasized that the Freedom of Information Law is permissive. In other words, while that statute authorizes an agency to withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial, it has been held by the Court of Appeals that the exceptions are not mandatory, and that an agency may choose to disclose records even though the authority to withhold exists [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 567 (1986)].
I hope that I have been of assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to contact me.
Robert J. Freeman