January 24, 2006
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
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 letter in which you wrote that you are seeking "an Employer Separation Agreement" between a town and an employee. You asked whether there are "any obvious circumstances wherein the Town may withhold disclosure of this document."
From my perspective, the thrust of judicial decisions is clear, and such agreements, like other contracts between government agencies and persons or entities, are accessible under the Freedom of Information Law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First and significantly, the courts have consistently interpreted the Freedom of Information Law in a manner that fosters maximum access. As stated by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, 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 court 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, 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,67 NY2d 562, 565-566 (1986)].
Second, as the judicial decisions cited above make clear, 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. While it appears that two of the grounds for denial of access may be pertinent to an analysis of rights of access, neither, in my view, would appear to justify withholding the record at issue.
Assuming that the agreement was reached while the employee was still an employee of the town, I believe that it would constitute "intra-agency" material that falls within §87(2)(g). Although that provision potentially serves as a basis for a denial of access, due to its structure, it often requires disclosure. Specifically, it 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.
An agreement, by its nature, is final and serves as a final agency determination reflective of the terms and conditions of a relationship between an individual in this instance and the town. That being so, it would be accessible under subparagraph (iii) of §87(2)(g), unless a different exception to rights of access can properly be asserted.
The remaining provisions that are relevant in ascertaining rights of access are §§87(2)(b) and 89(2)(b), which authorize agencies to withhold records insofar as disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
I note that instances have arisen in which agreements or settlements have included provisions requiring confidentiality. Those kinds of agreements have uniformly been struck down and found to be inconsistent with the Freedom of Information Law. In short, it has been held that a promise or assertion of confidentiality cannot be upheld, unless a statute specifically confers confidentiality. In Gannett News Service v. Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services [415 NYS 2d 780 (1979)], a state agency guaranteed confidentiality to school districts participating in a statistical survey concerning drug abuse. The court determined that the promise of confidentiality could not be sustained, and that the records were available, for none of the grounds for denial appearing in the Freedom of Information Law could justifiably be asserted. In a decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, it was held that a state agency's:
"long-standing promise of confidentiality to the intervenors is irrelevant to whether the requested documents fit within the Legislature's definition of 'record' under FOIL. The definition does not exclude or make any reference to information labeled as 'confidential' by the agency; confidentiality is relevant only when determining whether the record or a portion of it is exempt..." [Washington Post v. Insurance Department, 61 NY 2d 557, 565 (1984)].
In a different context, in Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons (Supreme Court, Wayne County, March 25, 1981), a public employee charged with misconduct and in the process of an arbitration hearing engaged in a settlement agreement with a municipality. One aspect of the settlement was an agreement to the effect that its terms would remain confidential. Notwithstanding the agreement of confidentiality, which apparently was based on an assertion that "the public interest is benefitted by maintaining harmonious relationships between government and its employees", the court found that no ground for denial could justifiably be cited to withhold the agreement. On the contrary, it was determined that:
"the citizen's right to know that public servants are held accountable when they abuse the public trust outweighs any advantage that would accrue to municipalities were they able to negotiate disciplinary matters with its employee with the power to suppress the terms of any settlement".
Moreover, it is clear that those who serve or who have served as 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. The courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a public employee's 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); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)].
In two decisions rendered by the Appellate Division, the facts appear to have been similar to those that you presented, for they involved persons who left their employment with municipalities in accordance with the terms of agreements with those municipalities. In both instances, it was determined that the agreements were accessible under the Freedom of Information Law. One case involved an agreement concerning a separation from employment that contained a "confidentiality clause" [Village of Brockport v. Calandra 745 NYS2d 662 (2002); affirmed, 305 AD2d 1030 (2003)], and it was determined that the agreement was accessible, and that the confidentiality clause "offends public policy" and "cannot stand" (id., 668). The other dealt with a situation in which a municipality disclosed a settlement agreement with a public employee that included provisions regarding confidentiality and was sued for breach of contract as a result of the disclosure. The municipality contended that disclosure was required by the Freedom of Information Law, and the court agreed, stating that none of the exceptions to rights of access applied [Hansen v. Town of Wallkill, 270 AD2d 390 (2000)].
Based on the direction and weight of the judicial decisions cited and described in the preceding commentary, I believe that the record sought must be disclosed to comply with law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.