April 22, 2005
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 aware, I have received a variety of materials from you concerning your request made under the Freedom of Information Law to the Nassau County Civil Service Commission. The request involves the "title, grade, salary, class, exam score, Dept. termination date or resignation date, hire date or dates" pertaining to named individuals. In response, you were informed that the "information as kept contains confidential material on other employees." Later, however, you received information reflective of the names of five employees; the titles, salaries and dates of employment were included with respect to three; an exam score was given with respect to one; only a title was given in relation to a former employee; and you were informed that the information sought was already disclosed to you concerning a fifth employee.
From my perspective, each of the items that you requested must be disclosed to comply with the Freedom of Information Law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, 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. It is emphasized that the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the grounds for denial of access that follow. The phrase quoted in the preceding sentence indicates that there are instances in which a single record might include both accessible and deniable information and that an agency is required to review records that have been requested in their entirety to determine which portions, if any, may justifiably be withheld. In short, even if records include information that may properly be withheld, it does not follow that they may be withheld in their entirety; on the contrary, even though portions of records may be redacted, the remainder must be disclosed.
Second, 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). 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.
Third, based on the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law, 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 those individuals are required to be more accountable than others. The courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of the official duties of those persons 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 items are irrelevant to the performance of their 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, dealing with membership in a union; Minerva v. Village of Valley Stream, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., May 20, 1981, involving the back of a check payable to a municipal attorney that could indicate how that person spends his/her money; Selig v. Sielaff, 200 AD 2d 298 (1994), concerning disclosure of social security numbers].
There are numerous instances in which portions of personnel records are available, while others are not. By means of example, items within a record indicating a public employee’s gross pay would be accessible, but items involving charitable contributions, alimony, deductions and the like would be exempt; those latter items are unrelated to the performance of one’s official duties. Attendance records indicating time in and out, days and dates of leave claimed have been found to be accessible (see Capital Newspapers, supra), but portions of those records indicating an employee’s medical condition could be withheld.
In my view, each of the items that you requested, including the dates of initial employment, resignation or termination, as well as the dates on which employees were rehired, are clearly relevant to the duties of public employees and, therefore, are accessible. I note, too, that Department of Civil Service regulations have long required that eligible lists identifying persons who passed civil service exams with their grades, be made available (see §71.3).
Lastly, in affirming the Appellate Division decision in Capital Newspapers, the Court of Appeals 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" (Capital Newspapers v. Burns, supra, 565-566).
Based on the preceding analysis, again, it is clear in my view that the items at issue must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Law.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, copies of this opinion will be sent to County officials.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Karl Kampe
Ruth Markovitz, Deputy County Attorney