September 26, 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 information presented in your correspondence.
As you are aware, I have received your letter. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response.
You referred to a situation in which a proceeding was initiated against you as the owner of a vacant building in Albany. Although the house was accepted in the Vacant Buildings Program, the proceeding was dismissed, and you were given a year to renovate the property, the City "demolished" the house without prior notice to you or an indication of the reason for its action. You wrote that you were told that the records in possession of the Albany Civil Court" were sealed, and that the Fire Department "never responded" to your requests for records in its possession.
In this regard, the Freedom of Information Law is applicable to agency records, and §86(3) defines the term "agency" to include:
"any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature."
In turn, §86(1) defines the term "judiciary" to mean:
"the courts of the state, including any municipal or district court, whether or not of record."
Based on the provisions quoted above, the courts are not subject to the Freedom of Information Law. This is not to suggest that court records are not generally available to the public, for other provisions of law may grant broad public access to those records. Even though other statutes may deal with access to court records, the procedural provisions associated with the Freedom of Information Law (i.e., those involving the designation of a records access officer or the right to appeal a denial) would not ordinarily be applicable.
You made reference to Judiciary Law, §255, which provides that:
"...[A] clerk of a court must, upon request, and upon payment of, or offer to pay, the fees allowed by law, or, if no fees are expressly allowed by law, fees at the rate allowed to a county clerk for a similar service, diligently search the files, papers, records, and dockets in his office; and either make one or more transcripts or certificates of change therefrom, and certify to the correctness thereof, and to the search, or certify that a document or paper, of which the custody legally belongs to him, can not be found."
Based on the foregoing, unless court records are sealed or exempted from disclosure by statute, I believe that they are accessible.
You referred to records being sealed by "Albany Civil Court." If that is so, I am unaware of the basis of any such action. Part 216 of the Uniform Rules pertaining to trial courts entitled "Sealing of Court Records in Civil Action in the Trial Courts" states in relevant part that:
"Except where otherwise provided by statute or rule, a court shall not enter an order in any action or proceeding sealing the court records, whether in whole or in part, except upon a written finding of good cause, which shall specify the grounds thereof. In determining whether good cause has been show, the court shall consider the interests of the public as well as of the parties. Where it appears necessary or desirable, the court may prescribe appropriate notice and opportunity to be heard."
In consideration of the provision quoted above, it is suggested that you discuss the matter with the clerk of the court.
The Fire Department operates within City government and its records, therefore, are "agency" records that fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law.
I point out that the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government (21 NYCRR Part 1401) require that each agency designate one or more persons as "records access officer." The records access officer has the duty of coordinating an agency’s response to requests, and requests should ordinarily be made to that person. Although I believe that the Fire Department official in receipt of your request should have responded to you in a manner consistent with law or forwarded the request to the records access officer, it is suggested that you resubmit your request to the records access officer, the Albany City Clerk, Mr. John Marsolais.
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, which shall be reasonable under the circumstances of the request, when such request will be granted or denied..."
It is noted that new language was added to that provision on May 3 (Chapter 22, Laws of 2005) stating that:
"If circumstances prevent disclosure to the person requesting the record or records within twenty business days from the date of the acknowledgement of the receipt of the request, the agency shall state, in writing, both the reason for the inability to grant the request within twenty business days and a date certain within a reasonable period, depending on the circumstances, when the request will be granted in whole or in part."
Based on the foregoing, an agency must grant access to records, deny access in writing, 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 within twenty business days indicating when it can be anticipated that a request will be granted or denied. However, if it is known that circumstances prevent the agency from granting access within twenty business days, or if the agency cannot grant access by the approximate date given and needs more than twenty business days to grant access, it must provide a written explanation of its inability to do so and a specific date by which it will grant access. That date must be reasonable in consideration of the circumstances of the request.
The amendments clearly are intended to prohibit agencies from unnecessarily delaying disclosure. They are not intended to permit agencies to wait until the fifth business day following the receipt of a request and then twenty additional business days to determine rights of access, unless it is reasonable to do so based upon "the circumstances of the request." From my perspective, 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, when 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 delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, 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 concerning the reasonableness of a delay in disclosure that cited and confirmed the advice rendered by this office concerning reasonable grounds for delaying disclosure, it was held that:
"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"(Linz v. The Police Department of the City of New York, Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, December 17, 2001).
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 beyond the approximate date of less than twenty business days given in its acknowledgement, if it acknowledges that a request has been received, but has failed to grant access by the specific date given beyond twenty business days, or if the specific date given is unreasonable, a request may be considered to have been constructively denied [see §89(4)(a)]. In such a circumstance, the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a), which 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."
Section 89(4)(b) was also amended, and it states that a failure to determine an appeal within ten business days of the receipt of an appeal constitutes a denial of the appeal. In that circumstance, 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.
Lastly, 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.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Hon. John Marsolais
Court Clerk, Albany City Court