December 27, 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.
As you are aware, I have received your correspondence concerning a denial of your request for certain records maintained by Binghamton University. You sought "all of the SOOT results - - and/or any form of evaluation whatsoever completed by students - - delineated by individual instructor and then by course (separately) for the past eight semesters." "SOOT" is a program involving "Student Opinion of Teaching." The University denied the request on the basis of §89(2)(b)(i), "in that to release such evaluations would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy of the professor in that the evaluations are considered personnel records."
From my perspective, it is unlikely that the University can justify its response to your request. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, as you suggested in the correspondence, there is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that deals specifically with personnel records or personnel files. The nature and content of so-called personnel files may differ from one agency to another and from one employee to another. 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 are the factors used in determining the extent to which they are available or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law.
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.
Pertinent to an analysis of rights of access is §87(2)(b), which authorizes an agency to withhold records or portions of records which "if disclosed would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy under the provisions of subdivision two of section eighty-nine of this article." The provision cited by the University as its basis for denying the request is found within that provision and states that an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy includes "disclosure of employment, medical or credit histories or personal references of applicants for employment."
In my view, the records sought could not be characterized as "employment histories". Further, it has been held that the language concerning employment histories is applicable to private employment, and that it cannot properly be asserted to withhold records involving public employment history [see Kwasnik v. City of New York and City University of New York, 262 AD2d 171 (1999)].
Notwithstanding the foregoing, I point out that the introductory language of §89(2)(b) indicates that the an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy "includes, but shall not be limited to" the examples of unwarranted invasions of privacy that appear in the ensuing provisions, the first of which is §89(2)(b)(i). Although the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public employees. It is clear based upon judicial decisions 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. Further, the courts have found in a variety of contexts that 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); 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, 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].
Evaluations of faculty members’ teaching skills by students, those most familiar with the most significant aspect of the work of those public employees, in my opinion are clearly relevant to the performance of faculty members’ duties. That being so, I do not believe that disclosure may be characterized as constituting an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. In short, the evaluations are neither "personal", nor do they reflect intimate aspects of faculty members’ lives [see Hanig v. State Department of Motor Vehicles, 79 NY2d 106 (1992)].
Lastly, it is emphasized that the courts have consistently interpreted the Freedom of Information Law in a manner that fosters maximum access. As stated by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, more than twenty-five years ago:
"To be sure, the balance is presumptively struck in favor of disclosure, but in eight specific, narrowly constructed instances where the governmental agency convincingly demonstrates its need, disclosure will not be ordered (Public Officers Law, section 87, subd 2). Thus, the agency does not have carte blanche to withhold any information it pleases. Rather, it is required to articulate particularized and specific justification and, if necessary, submit the requested materials to the courts for in camera inspection, to exempt its records from disclosure (see Church of Scientology of N.Y. v. State of New York, 46 NY 2d 906, 908). Only where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld" [Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571 (1979)]."
In another decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, it was held that:
"Exemptions are to be narrowly construed to provide maximum access, and the agency seeking to prevent disclosure carries the burden of demonstrating that the requested material falls squarely within a FOIL exemption by articulating a particularized and specific justification for denying access" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, supra, 566 (1986); see also, Farbman & Sons v. New York City, 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984); and Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571 (1979)].
Moreover, in the same decision, in a statement regarding the intent and utility of the Freedom of Information Law, it was 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" (id., 565-566).
In an effort to encourage them to reconsider your request, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to University attorneys.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Stacey Hengsterman