March 6, 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 facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter concerning a denial by the City Manager of the City of Ogdensburg for a copy of "a financial proposal from a local business threatened with loss of city services (sewer, water) if bills are not paid....because the city plans to sue the business for assets if it closes and the letter is part of the litigation background." You have sought an opinion concerning the propriety of the denial of access.
In this regard, 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.
The possibility that the record at issue might be pertinent to or related to litigation is, in my view, largely irrelevant. As stated by the Court of Appeals, the State's highest court, in a case involving a request made under the Freedom of Information Law by a person involved in litigation against an agency: "Access to records of a government agency under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) (Public Officers Law, Article 6) is not affected by the fact that there is pending or potential litigation between the person making the request and the agency" [Farbman v. NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, 62 NY 2d 75, 78 (1984)]. Similarly, in an earlier decision, the Court of Appeals determined that "the standing of one who seeks access to records under the Freedom of Information Law is as a member of the public, and is neither enhanced...nor restricted...because he is also a litigant or potential litigant" [Matter of John P. v. Whalen, 54 NY 2d 89, 99 (1980)]. The Court in Farbman, supra, discussed the distinction between the use of the Freedom of Information Law as opposed to the use of discovery in Article 31 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Specifically, it was found that:
"FOIL does not require that the party requesting records make any showing of need, good faith or legitimate purpose; while its purpose may be to shed light on governmental decision-making, its ambit is not confined to records actually used in the decision-making process (Matter of Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581.) Full disclosure by public agencies is, under FOIL, a public right and in the public interest, irrespective of the status or need of the person making the request.
"CPLR article 31 proceeds under a different premise, and serves quite different concerns. While speaking also of 'full disclosure' article 31 is plainly more restrictive than FOIL. Access to records under CPLR depends on status and need. With goals of promoting both the ascertainment of truth at trial and the prompt disposition of actions (Allen v. Crowell-Collier Pub. Co., 21 NY 2d 403, 407), discovery is at the outset limited to that which is 'material and necessary in the prosecution or defense of an action'" [see Farbman, supra, at 80].
Based upon the foregoing, the pendency of litigation would not, in my opinion, affect either the rights of the public under the Freedom of Information Law. In short, if the record would be accessible if litigation was not a possibility, it would be just as accessible even though litigation may be or has been commenced.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of applicable law, a copy of this opinion will be forwarded to the City Manager.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: City Manager