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FOIL-AO-15856

 

March 15, 2006

E-MAIL

TO:

FROM: Camille S. Jobin-Davis, Assistant 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.

Dear

We are in receipt of your January 30, 2006 request for an advisory opinion concerning the application of the Freedom of Information Law to a request made to the Department of Economic Development to inspect Part D of Empire Zone Business Annual Reports, which indicate dollar amounts of certain tax credits claimed or estimated to be claimed by a particular commercial entity.

The reports are completed by business entities that have applied for or have been certified for participation in the "Empire Zones" program, and you enclosed a copy of the form of a report. Our executive director has spoken with the Department’s records access officer and Counsel. Based on his conversations with them, the terms of the Freedom of Information Law, and the judicial interpretation of that statute, we 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 courts have consistently interpreted the Freedom of Information Law in a manner that fosters maximum access. As stated by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, nearly thirty 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 courts 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 rendered by the Court of Appeals, it was held that:

"Exemptions are to be narrowly construed to provide maximum access, and the agency seeking to prevent disclosure carries the burden of demonstrating that the requested material falls squarely within a FOIL exemption by articulating a particularized and specific justification for denying access" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 566 (1986); see also, Farbman & Sons v. New York City, 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984); and Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571 (1979)].

Moreover, in the same decision, in a statement regarding the intent and utility of the Freedom of Information Law, it was 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" (id., 565-566).

Second, the key exception in the context of your inquiry is §87(2)(d), which permits an agency to withhold records or portions thereof that:

"are trade secrets or are submitted to an agency by a commercial enterprise or derived from information obtained from a commercial enterprise and which if disclosed would cause substantial injury to the competitive position of the subject enterprise..."

Therefore, the question under §87(2)(d) involves the extent, if any, to which disclosure would "cause substantial injury to the competitive position" of a commercial entity.

From our perspective, in some circumstances, that exception might be properly asserted with respect to Part D, depending on the attendant facts.

The concept and parameters of what might constitute a "trade secret" were discussed in Kewanee Oil Co. v. Bicron Corp., which was decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1973 (416 (U.S. 470). Central to the issue was a definition of "trade secret" upon which reliance is often based. Specifically, the Court cited the Restatement of Torts, section 757, comment b (1939), which states that:

"[a] trade secret may consist of any formula, pattern, device or compilation of information which is used in one's business, and which gives him an opportunity to obtain an advantage over competitors who do not know or use it. It may be a formula for a chemical compound, a process of manufacturing, treating or preserving materials, a pattern for a machine or other device, or a list of customers" (id. at 474, 475).

In its review of the definition, the court stated that "[T]he subject of a trade secret must be secret, and must not be of public knowledge or of a general knowledge in the trade or business" (id.). The phrase "trade secret" is more extensively defined in 104 NY Jur 2d 234 to mean:

"...a formula, process, device or compilation of information used in one's business which confers a competitive advantage over those in similar businesses who do not know it or use it. A trade secret, like any other secret, is something known to only one or a few and kept from the general public, and not susceptible to general knowledge. Six factors are to be considered in determining whether a trade secret exists: (1) the extent to which the information is known outside the business; (2) the extent to which it is known by a business' employees and others involved in the business; (3) the extent of measures taken by a business to guard the secrecy of the information; (4) the value of the information to a business and to its competitors; (5) the amount of effort or money expended by a business in developing the information; and (6) the ease or difficulty with which the information could be properly acquired or duplicated by others. If there has been a voluntary disclosure by the plaintiff, or if the facts pertaining to the matter are a subject of general knowledge in the trade, then any property right has evaporated."

In our view, the nature of record, the area of commerce in which a commercial entity is involved and the presence of the conditions described above that must be found to characterize records as trade secrets would be the factors used to determine the extent to which disclosure would "cause substantial injury to the competitive position" of a commercial enterprise. Therefore, the proper assertion of §87(2)(d) would be dependent upon the facts and, again, the effect of disclosure upon the competitive position of the entity to which the records relate.

Perhaps most relevant to the analysis is a decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, which, for the first time, considered the phrase "substantial competitive injury" in Encore College Bookstores, Inc. v. Auxiliary Service Corporation of the State University of New York at Farmingdale, [87 NY2d 410 (1995)]. In that decision, the Court reviewed the legislative history of the Freedom of Information Law as it pertains to §87(2)(d), and due to the analogous nature of equivalent exception in the federal Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. §552), it relied in part upon federal judicial precedent.

In its discussion of the issue, the Court stated that:

"FOIL fails to define substantial competitive injury. Nor has this Court previously interpreted the statutory phrase. FOIA, however, contains a similar exemption for 'commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential' (see, 5 USC § 552[b][4]). Commercial information, moreover, is 'confidential' if it would impair the government's ability to obtain necessary information in the future or cause 'substantial harm to the competitive position' of the person from whom the information was obtained...

"As established in Worthington Compressors v Costle (662 F2d 45, 51 [DC Cir]), whether 'substantial competitive harm' exists for purposes of FOIA's exemption for commercial information turns on the commercial value of the requested information to competitors and the cost of acquiring it through other means. Because the submitting business can suffer competitive harm only if the desired material has commercial value to its competitors, courts must consider how valuable the information will be to the competing business, as well as the resultant damage to the submitting enterprise...

...[A]s explained in Worthington:

Because competition in business turns on the relative costs and opportunities faced by members of the same industry, there is a potential windfall for competitors to whom valuable information is released under FOIA. If those competitors are charged only minimal FOIA retrieval costs for the information, rather than the considerable costs of private reproduction, they may be getting quite a bargain. Such bargains could easily have competitive consequences not contemplated as part of FOIA's principal aim of promoting openness in government (id., 419-420).

Based on our discussions of Part D with representatives of the Department, it is unclear how the release of its content could be damaging to the firms. We note that the Court in Encore observed that the reasoning underlying the policy behind §87(2)(d) "to protect businesses from the deleterious consequences of disclosing confidential commercial information so as to further the state's economic development efforts and attract business to New York" (id.). In applying those considerations to Encore's request, the Court concluded that the submitting enterprise was not required to establish actual competitive harm; rather, it was required, in the words of Gulf and Western Industries v. United States, 615 F.2d 527, 530 (D.C. Cir., 1979) to show "actual competition and the likelihood of substantial competitive injury" (id., at 421).

It is our understanding that Part D may include information pertaining to real property. If a purchase is "projected", if it is part of the business plan or strategy of a firm, those portions of the form containing information regarding investments in real property might properly be withheld under §87(2)(d). On the other hand, if real property has been purchased, if such a transaction has been consummated, we believe that entries regarding investments in real property and real property tax credits would be accessible. In short, the purchase or sale of real property is not secret; records pertaining a transaction of that nature are accessible to any person at an office of a county clerk or a municipal assessor.

Lastly, it is our understanding that some of the information contained in Part D is included in an annual report prepared by the Department of Taxation and Finance, and that such report is specifically exempted from disclosure pursuant to a statute in the Tax Law. Nevertheless, the tax secrecy provisions apply to records maintained by the Department of Taxation and Finance, but not to other agencies.

It has been contended that other records reported to the IRS and the State Department of Taxation and Finance are specifically exempted from disclosure by statute on the basis of 26 USC 6103 (the Internal Revenue Code) and §697(e) of the Tax Law. In our opinion, those statutes would not be applicable in this instance. In an effort to obtain expert advice on the matter, we contacted the Disclosure Litigation Division of the Office of Chief Counsel at the Internal Revenue Service to discuss the issue. We were informed that the statutes requiring confidentiality pertain to records received and maintained by the Internal Revenue Service; those statutes do not pertain to records kept by an individual taxpayer, employer, or in this instance, the Department of Economic Development [see e.g., Stokwitz v. Naval Investigation Service, 831 F.2d 893 (1987)]. In short, the attorney for the Internal Revenue Service said that the statutes in question require confidentiality only with respect to records that it receives from the taxpayer.


On behalf of the Committee on Open Government, we hope this is of assistance to you.

cc: William Osta
Lisa Bonacci