December 10, 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.
As you are aware, I have received your letter and the materials relating to it.
It is my understanding that Pier 57 on the Hudson River in New York City is owned by the Hudson River Park Trust ("the Trust"). According to the correspondence, a request was made on September 20 by the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project for records "related to events during the RNC convention"(the Republican National Convention), specifically:
"1. Communications with NYC Police Department, NYC Department of Corrections, NYC Law Department and/or any other city or state agency/department regarding lease, license, or temporary transfer of Pier.
2. Any lease or use agreement.
3. Copy of title and certificate of occupancy.
4. List of Park Trust and Department of Parks and Recreation employees assigned to Pier 57 from August 26 to September 15, 2004.
5. Any employee reports or complaints filed regarding health and safety conditions about Pier 57.
6. Any photographs or videos of the interior of Pier 57.
7. Any MDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) on file.
8. ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT/TESTS RECEIVED FROM NYC Transit or MTA."
The receipt of your request to the Trust was acknowledged on September 23, when you were informed that a reply would be prepared within "the next two to three weeks." However, as of the date of your letter to this office, you had apparently received no further response.
A similar request was made to the New York City Police Department, for you sought:
"All environmental test/analysis data and reports performed on Pier 57.
All agreements, stipulations, leases with the HUDSON RIVER PARK TRUST
All communications with other city agencies, including but not limited to the NYCDHMH Buildings
All health and safety complaints by police officers and civilians assigned to Pier 57 from August 26 to present."
The Police Department denied your request in its entirety on the basis of §87(2)(e)(i) of the Freedom of Information Law.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied..."
Based on the foregoing, an agency must grant access to records, deny access or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days of receipt of a request. When an acknowledgement is given, it must include an approximate date indicating when it can be anticipated that a request will be granted or denied.
I note that there is no precise time period within which an agency must grant or deny access to records. The time needed to do so may be dependent upon the volume of a request, the possibility that other requests have been made, the necessity to conduct legal research, the search and retrieval techniques used to locate the records and the like. In short, when an agency acknowledges the receipt of a request because more than five business days may be needed to grant or deny a request, so long as it provides an approximate date indicating when the request will be granted or denied, and that date is reasonable in view of the attendant circumstances, I believe that the agency would be acting in compliance with law.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, in my view, every law must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent, and I point out that in its statement of legislative intent, §84 of the Freedom of Information Law states that "it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible." Therefore, if records are clearly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law, or if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a lengthy delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals has asserted:
"...the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such objectives cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to bring them about permeate the body politic to a point where they become the rule rather than the exception. The phrase 'public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' therefore merely punctuates with explicitness what in any event is implicit" [Westchester News v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 579 (1980)].
In a judicial decision that cited and confirmed the advice rendered by this office, Linz v. The Police Department of the City of New York (Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, December 17, 2001), it was held that:
"In the absence of a specific statutory period, this Court concludes that respondents should be given a ‘reasonable’ period to comply with a FOIL request. The determination of whether a period is reasonable must be made on a case by case basis taking into account the volume of documents requested, the time involved in locating the material, and the complexity of the issues involved in determining whether the materials fall within one of the exceptions to disclosure. Such a standard is consistent with some of the language in the opinions, submitted by petitioners in this case, of the Committee on Open Government, the agency charged with issuing advisory opinions on FOIL."
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, or if the acknowledgement of the receipt of a request fails to include an estimated date for granting or denying access, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied [see DeCorse v. City of Buffalo, 239 AD2d 949, 950 (1997)]. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states in relevant part that:
"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d 774 (1982)].
Second, the response by the Police Department in my opinion reflects a failure to abide by a decision rendered by the state’s highest court involving requests made to the Department, Gould v. New York City Police Department, [87 NY 2d 267 (1996)].
Perhaps most importantly, 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. It is emphasized that the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the exceptions that follow. In my view, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence evidences a recognition on the part of the Legislature that a single record or report, for example, might include portions that are available under the statute, as well as portions that might justifiably be withheld. That being so, I believe that it also imposes an obligation on an agency to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, might properly be withheld or deleted prior to disclosing the remainder.
The Court of Appeals confirmed its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law in Gould, stating that:
"To ensure maximum access to government records, the 'exemptions are to be narrowly construed, with the burden resting on the agency to demonstrate that the requested material indeed qualifies for exemption' (Matter of Hanig v. State of New York Dept. of Motor Vehicles, 79 N.Y.2d 106, 109, 580 N.Y.S.2d 715, 588 N.E.2d 750 see, Public Officers Law § 89[b]). As this Court has stated, '[o]nly where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld' (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 N.Y.2d, 567, 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463)" (id., 275).
Just as significant, the Court in Gould repeatedly specified that a categorical denial of access to records is inconsistent with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law. In that case, the Police Department contended that complaint follow up reports could be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they fall within the exception regarding intra-agency materials, §87(2)(g), an exception separate from that cited in response to your request. The Court, however, wrote that: "Petitioners contend that because the complaint follow-up reports contain factual data, the exemption does not justify complete nondisclosure of the reports. We agree" (id., 276), and stated as a general principle that "blanket exemptions for particular types of documents are inimical to FOIL's policy of open government" (id., 275). The Court also offered guidance to agencies and lower courts in determining rights of access and referred to several decisions it had previously rendered, stating that:
"...to invoke one of the exemptions of section 87(2), the agency must articulate 'particularized and specific justification' for not disclosing requested documents (Matter of Fink vl. Lefkowitz, supra, 47 N.Y.2d, at 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463). If the court is unable to determine whether withheld documents fall entirely within the scope of the asserted exemption, it should conduct an in camera inspection of representative documents and order disclosure of all nonexempt, appropriately redacted material (see, Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 N.Y.2d 131, 133, 490 N.Y.S. 2d, 488, 480 N.E.2d 74; Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., supra, 62 N.Y.2d, at 83, 476 N.Y.S.2d 69, 464 N.E.2d 437)" (id.).
In the context of your request, the Department has engaged in a blanket denial of access in a manner which, in my view, is equally inappropriate. I am not suggesting that the records sought must be disclosed in full. Rather, based on the direction given by the Court of Appeals in several decisions, the records must be reviewed by the Department and the Hudson River Park Trust for the purpose of identifying those portions of the records that might fall within the scope of one or more of the grounds for denial of access. As the Court stated later in the decision: "Indeed, the Police Department is entitled to withhold complaint follow-up reports, or specific portions thereof, under any other applicable exemption, such as the law-enforcement exemption or the public-safety exemption, as long as the requisite particularized showing is made" (id., 277; emphasis added).
In short, I believe that the basis for the denial of your appeal was incomplete and inadequate, and that the blanket denial of the request was inconsistent with law.
The provision cited by the Department, §87(2)(e)(i), authorizes an agency to withhold records "compiled for law enforcement purposes" to the extent that disclosure would "interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings."
From my perspective, many of the records sought cannot justifiably be characterized as having been "compiled for law enforcement purposes." Agreements, stipulations or leases, would have been prepared in the ordinary course of business or for purposes unrelated to law enforcement. To characterize those records as having been compiled for law enforcement purposes, even though they may be used in or pertinent to an investigation, would be inconsistent with both the language and the judicial interpretations of the Freedom of Information Law cited earlier. Based upon the thrust of those decisions, §87(2)(e) should be construed narrowly in order to foster access. Further, case law illustrates why §87(2)(e) should be construed narrowly, and why a broad construction of that provision would give rise to an anomalous result. Specifically, in King v. Dillon (Supreme Court, Nassau County, December 19, 1984), the District Attorney was engaged in an investigation of the petitioner, who had served as a village clerk. In conjunction with the investigation, the District Attorney obtained minutes of meetings of the village board of trustees. Those minutes, which were prepared by the petitioner, were requested from the District Attorney. In granting access to the minutes, the decision indicated that "the party resisting disclosure has the burden of proof in establishing entitlement to the exemption," and the judge wrote that he:
"must note in the first instance that the records sought were not compiled for law enforcement purposes (P.O.L. 87e). Minutes of Village Board meetings serve a different function...These were public records, ostensibly prepared by the petitioner, so there can be little question of the disclosure of confidential material."
Often records prepared in the ordinary course of business, which might already have been disclosed under the Freedom of Information Law, become relevant to or used in a law enforcement investigation or perhaps in litigation. In my view, when that occurs, the records would not be transformed into records compiled for law enforcement purposes. If they would have been available prior to their use in a law enforcement context, I believe that they would remain available, notwithstanding their use in that context for a purpose inconsistent with the reason for which they were prepared.
Even if some of the records sought were compiled for law enforcement purposes, it is questionable how, at this juncture, disclosure would "interfere" with an investigation or judicial proceeding. In short, the extent to which §87(2)(e)(i) may properly be asserted appears to be limited and minimal.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, I believe that some of the records may be withheld in whole or in part, depending on their contents.
Communications between the Police Department and other City agencies, as well as health and safety complaints made by police officers, would fall within §87(2)(g). That provision authorizes 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.
As indicated earlier, the Court of Appeals in Gould emphasized that a blanket denial of access on the basis of §87(2)(g) may be inconsistent with its specific language, for subparagraphs (i) through (iv) require disclosure, unless a different exception may be asserted. The Court focused on portions of inter-agency and intra-agency materials consisting of factual data, stressing that such data includes "objective" information, as opposed to expressions of advice or opinion that reflect the deliberative process and the thought process of agency officers and employees (Gould, supra, 276-277).
Insofar as complaints by police officers include information reflective of the medical problems or conditions of the officers, I believe that those portions of the records may be withheld pursuant to §87(2)(b) and 89(2)(b) on the ground that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
Complaints from members of the public would not fall within §87(2)(g). However, it
has generally been advised that those portions of a complaint or other record which identify complainants may be deleted on the ground that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. I point out that §89(2)(b) states that an "agency may delete identifying details when it makes records available." Further, the same provision contains five examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy, the last two of which include:
"iv. disclosure of information of a personal nature when disclosure would result in economic or personal hardship to the subject party and such information is not relevant to the work of the agency requesting or maintaining it; or
v. disclosure of information of a personal nature reported in confidence to an agency and not relevant to the ordinary work of such agency."
In my opinion, what is relevant to the work of the agency is the substance of the complaint, i.e., whether or not the complaint has merit. The identity of a member of the person who made the complaint is often irrelevant to the work of the agency, and in most circumstances, I believe that identifying details may be deleted. Following the deletions of identifying details, I believe that the substance of the complaints would be available.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, copies of this response will be forwarded to the Police Department and the Hudson River Park Trust.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Jonathan David
Lt. Daniel Gonzalez