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.
I have received your inquiry and apologize for the delay in response.
In your capacity as assessor for the City of Port Jervis, you wrote that a property owner supplied information to you that included the following statement:
"Under federal Privacy Act Laws I expect all such information submitted to you and your office to be held in a confidential manner."
You asked "[W]here do we now stand under the Freedom of Information Law vs. the Federal Privacy Act Laws?"
In this regard, first, the federal Privacy Act (5 USC §552a) applies only to records maintained by federal agencies. It does not apply to units of state and local government. Similarly, the New York Personal Privacy Protection Law applies only to state agencies and specifies that units of local government are not subject to that statute [see Public Officers Law, Article 6-a and definition of "agency", §92(1)].
Second, based on several judicial decisions, an assertion, a request for, or a promise of confidentiality, unless it is based upon a statute, is generally meaningless. When confidentiality is conferred by a statute, an act of the State Legislature or Congress, records fall outside the scope of rights of access pursuant to §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, which states that an agency may withhold records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute". If there is no statute upon which an agency can rely to characterize records as "confidential" or "exempted from disclosure", the records are subject to whatever rights of access exist under the Freedom of Information Law [see Doolan v. BOCES, 48 NY 2d 341 (1979); Washington Post v. Insurance Department, 61 NY 2d 557 (1984); Gannett News Service, Inc. v. State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, 415 NYS 2d 780 (1979)]. As such, an assertion or promise of confidentiality, without more, would not in my view serve to enable an agency to withhold a record. There is no statute in this instance that requires or permits the City to honor a request for confidentiality.
Third, I believe that any record maintained by or for the City falls within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. Section 86(4) of that statute defines the term "record" expansively to include:
"any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."
The Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has construed the definition as broadly as its specific language suggests. The first such decision that dealt squarely with the scope of the term "record" involved documents pertaining to a lottery sponsored by a fire department. Although the agency contended that the documents did not pertain to the performance of its official duties, i.e., fighting fires, but rather to a "nongovernmental" activity, the Court rejected the claim of a "governmental versus nongovernmental dichotomy" [see Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581 (1980)] and found that the documents constituted "records" subject to rights of access granted by the Law. Moreover, the Court determined that:
"The statutory definition of 'record' makes nothing turn on the purpose for which it relates. This conclusion accords with the spirit as well as the letter of the statute. For not only are the expanding boundaries of governmental activity increasingly difficult to draw, but in perception, if not in actuality, there is bound to be considerable crossover between governmental and nongovernmental activities, especially where both are carried on by the same person or persons" (id.).
In another decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, the Court focused on an agency claim that it could "engage in unilateral prescreening of those documents which it deems to be outside of the scope of FOIL" and found that such activity "would be inconsistent with the process set forth in the statute" [Capital Newspapers v. Whalen, 69 NY 2d 246, 253 (1987)]. The Court determined that:
"...the procedure permitting an unreviewable prescreening of documents - which respondents urge us to engraft on the statute - could be used by an uncooperative and obdurate public official or agency to block an entirely legitimate request. There would be no way to prevent a custodian of records from removing a public record from FOIL's reach by simply labeling it 'purely private.' Such a construction, which would thwart the entire objective of FOIL by creating an easy means of avoiding compliance, should be rejected" (id., 254).
In short, once records come into the custody or possession of the City, they are the property of the City and fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law.
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 note, too, that long before the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, it was established by the courts that records pertaining to the assessment of real property are generally available [see e.g., Sears Roebuck & Co. v. Hoyt, 107 NYS 2d 756 (1951); Sanchez v. Papontas, 32 AD 2d 948 (1969), including assessment rolls. Moreover, even though the Freedom of Information Law authorizes an agency to withhold a list of names and addresses if the list is requested for commercial or fund-raising purposes, in a decision rendered more than twenty years ago, it was held that assessment rolls are accessible even though the request was made for a commercial purpose.
Section 89(6) of the Freedom of Information Law provides that records available under a different provision of law remain available, notwithstanding the grounds for denial of access appearing in the Freedom of Information Law. In Szikszay v. Buelow [436 NYS 2d 558 (1981)],the court found that assessment rolls or equivalent records are public records and were public before the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law. Specifically, it was found that:
"An assessment roll is a public record (Real Property Tax Law [section] 516 subd. 2; General Municipal Law [section] 51; County Law [section] 208 subd. 4). It must contain the name and mailing or billing address of the owner of the parcel (Real Property Tax Law [sections] 502, 504, 9 NYCRR [section] 190-1(6)(1)). Such records are open to public inspection and copying except as otherwise provided by law (General Municipal Law [section] 51; County Law [section] 208 subd. 4). Even prior to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, and under its predecessor, Public Officers Law [section] 66, repealed L.1974, c. 578, assessment rolls and related records were treated as public records, open to public inspection and copying (Sanchez v. Papontas, 32 A.D.2d 948, 303 N.Y.S.2d 711, Sears Roebuck & Co. v. Hoyt, 202 Misc. 43, 107 N.Y.S.2d 756; Ops. State Comptroller 1967, p. 596)" (id. at 562, 563).
One of the few instances in which records relating to the assessment of real property may be withheld would involve the submission of an income tax form in conjunction with a request for a senior citizen or agricultural exemption. In that circumstance, the form could in my opinion be withheld on the ground that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" [see Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(b)]. However, to reiterate, other assessment records are generally accessible to the public.
If you would like to share this response with the person seeking confidentiality, please feel free to do so.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman