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FOIL-AO-16321

 

December 7, 2006

E-Mail

TO:

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.

Dear

I have received your letter and apologize for the delay in response. Your inquiries focus on the notion of “confidentiality.”

You referred initially to:

“...groundrules...where the Superintendent’s weekly letter to all board members is considered confidential. This letter consists of the Superintendent’s statements, opinions, recommendations and comments. Last year I took issue with his letter to belittle myself and other board and community members. Is using a confidential letter to belittle people legal?”

In this regard, first, many judicial decisions have focused on access to and the ability to disclose records, and this office has considered the New York Freedom of Information Law and the federal Freedom of Information Act in its analyses of what may be “confidential.” To be confidential under the Freedom of Information Law, I believe that records must be “specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute” in accordance with §87(2)(a).

Both the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, and federal courts in construing access statutes have determined that the characterization of records as “confidential” or “exempted from disclosure by statute” must be based on statutory language that specifically confers or requires confidentiality. As stated by the Court of Appeals:

“Although we have never held that a State statute must expressly state it is intended to establish a FOIL exemption, we have required a showing of clear legislative intent to establish and preserve that confidentiality which one resisting disclosure claims as protection” [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY2d 562, 567 (1986)].

In like manner, in construing the equivalent exception to rights of access in the federal Act, it has been found that:

“Exemption 3 excludes from its coverage only matters that are:

specifically exempted from disclosure by statute (other than section 552b of this title), provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld.

“5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3) (1982) (emphasis added). Records sought to be withheld under authority of another statute thus escape the release requirements of FOIA if – and only if – that statute meets the requirements of Exemption 3, including the threshold requirement that it specifically exempt matters from disclosure. The Supreme Court has equated ‘specifically’ with ‘explicitly.’ Baldridge v. Shapiro, 455 U.S. 345, 355, 102 S. Ct. 1103, 1109, 71 L.Ed.2d 199 (1982). ‘[O]nly explicitly non-disclosure statutes that evidence a congressional determination that certain materials ought to be kept in confidence will be sufficient to qualify under the exemption.’ Irons & Sears v. Dann, 606 F.2d 1215, 1220 (D.C.Cir.1979) (emphasis added). In other words, a statute that is claimed to qualify as an Exemption 3 withholding statute must, on its face, exempt matters from disclosure”[Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press v. U.S. Department of Justice, 816 F.2d 730, 735 (1987); modified on other grounds,831 F.2d 1184 (1987); reversed on other grounds, 489 U.S. 789 (1989); see also British Airports Authority v. C.A.B., D.C.D.C.1982, 531 F.Supp. 408; Inglesias v. Central Intelligence Agency, D.C.D.C.1981, 525 F.Supp, 547; Hunt v. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, D.C.D.C.1979, 484 F.Supp. 47; Florida Medical Ass’n, Inc. v. Department of Health, Ed. & Welfare, D.C.Fla.1979, 479 F.Supp. 1291].

In short, to be “exempted from disclosure by statute”, both state and federal courts have determined that a statute must leave no discretion to an agency: it must withhold such records.

In contrast, when records are not exempted from disclosure by a separate statute, both the Freedom of Information Law and its federal counterpart are permissive. Although an agency may withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2), the Court of Appeals held that the agency is not obliged to do so and may choose to disclose, stating that:

“...while an agency is permitted to restrict access to those records falling within the statutory exemptions, the language of the exemption provision contains permissible rather than mandatory language, and it is within the agency’s discretion to disclose such records...if it so chooses” (Capital Newspapers, supra, 567).

The only situations in which an agency cannot disclose would involve those instances in which a statute other than the Freedom of Information Law prohibits disclosure. The same is so under the federal Act. While a federal agency may withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial, it has discretionary authority to disclose. Stated differently, there is nothing inherently confidential about records that an agency may choose to withhold or disclose; only when an agency has no discretion and must deny access would records be confidential or “specifically exempted from disclosure by statute” in accordance with §87(2)(a).

From my perspective, the Superintendent’s weekly letter would not be “confidential” or exempted from disclosure pursuant to a statute that forbids disclosure. Rather, it is likely that some aspects of the letters may be withheld; others would likely be public.

As 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 (j) of the Law. In my opinion, the contents of the records in question serve as the factors relevant to an analysis of the extent to which the records may be withheld or must be disclosed, and several of the grounds for denial may be relevant to such an analysis in relation to the records in question.

Records prepared by the Superintendent and forwarded to members of the Board would constitute intra-agency materials that fall within the coverage of §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states that an agency may 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 emphasized 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.

Moreover, the Court of Appeals has specified that the contents of intra-agency materials determine the extent to which they may be available or withheld, for it was held that:

"While the reports in principle may be exempt from disclosure, on this record - which contains only the barest description of them - we cannot determine whether the documents in fact fall wholly within the scope of FOIL's exemption for 'intra-agency materials,' as claimed by respondents. To the extent the reports contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law section 87[2][g][I], or other material subject to production, they should be redacted and made available to the appellant" [Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 NY 2d 131, 133 (1985)].

Therefore, as indicated earlier, and as you suggested, intra-agency materials may be accessible or deniable in whole or in part, depending upon their specific contents.

Also relevant may be §87(2)(b), which enables an agency to withhold records or portions thereof which if disclosed would result in an unwarranted invasion of privacy. That provision might be applied with respect to a variety of matters relating to hiring, evaluation or discipline of staff, for example.

Section 87(2)(c) of the Freedom of Information Law permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure "would impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations". Items within the letters might in some instances fall within that exception.

Again, it is emphasized that although records or perhaps portions of records may be withheld, there is no requirement that they must be withheld. The Court of Appeals has confirmed that the exceptions to rights of access are permissive, rather than mandatory, stating that:

"while an agency is permitted to restrict access to those records falling within the statutory exemptions, the language of the exemption provision contains permissible rather than mandatory language, and it is within the agency's discretion to disclose such records, with or without identifying details, if it so chooses" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 567 (1986)].

Consequently, even if it is determined that a record may be withheld under §87(2)(g), for example, an agency would have the authority to disclose the record.

It is also emphasized that the grounds for withholding records under the Freedom of Information Law and the grounds for entry into executive session are separate and distinct, and that they are not necessarily consistent. In some instances, although a record might be withheld under the Freedom of Information Law, a discussion of that record might be required to be conducted in public under the Open Meetings Law, and vice versa. For instance, if an administrator transmits a memorandum to the Board suggesting a change in policy, that record could be withheld. It would consist of intra-agency material reflective of an opinion or recommendation. Nevertheless, when the Board discusses the recommendation at a meeting, there would be no basis for conducting an executive session. Consequently, there may be no reason for withholding the record even though the Freedom of Information Law would so permit.

In short, while there may be a valid legal reason for withholding some elements of the records at issue, frequently their contents are fully discussed at open meetings, thereby diminishing the need or rationale for withholding.

In your second area of inquiry, you questioned whether:

“...if a board member were to make a motion to go into executive session to discuss an issue and the board majority refused, would it be permissible for the board member to begin discussing the issue in public?”

Here I point out that even when there is a basis for entry into executive session, there is no obligation to convene in private. Section 105(1) prescribes a procedure that must be accomplished in public before an executive session may be held. That provision states that:

“ Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only, provided, however, that no action by formal vote shall be taken to appropriate public moneys...”

If no motion is made to enter into executive session, or if a motion to conduct an executive session is not approved, a public body is generally free to discuss issues in public.

As in the case of the Freedom of Information Law, the only instances, in my view, in which members of a public body are prohibited from disclosing information would involve matters that are indeed confidential. When a public body has the discretionary authority to discuss a matter in public or in private, I do not believe that the matter can properly be characterized as “confidential.”

Since a public body may choose to conduct an executive session or discuss an issue in public, information expressed during an executive session is not ordinarily “confidential.” To be confidential, again, a statute must prohibit disclosure and leave no discretion to an agency or official regarding the ability to disclose.

By means of example, if a discussion by a board of education concerns a record pertaining to a particular student (i.e., in the case of consideration of disciplinary action, an educational program, an award, etc.), the discussion would have to occur in private and the record would have to be withheld insofar as public discussion or disclosure would identify the student. As you may be aware, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 USC §1232g) generally prohibits an educational agency from disclosing education records or information derived from those records that are identifiable to a student, unless the parents of the student consent to disclosure. In the context of the Open Meetings Law, a discussion concerning a student would constitute a matter made confidential by federal law and would be exempted from the coverage of that statute [see Open Meetings Law, §108(3)]. In the context of the Freedom of Information Law, an education record would be specifically exempted from disclosure by statute in accordance with §87(2)(a). In both contexts, I believe that a board of education, its members and school district employees would be prohibited from disclosing, because a statute requires confidentiality.

In a case in which the issue was whether discussions occurring during an executive session held by a school board could be considered "privileged", it was held that "there is no statutory provision that describes the matter dealt with at such a session as confidential or which in any way restricts the participants from disclosing what took place" (Runyon v. Board of Education, West Hempstead Union Free School District No. 27, Supreme Court, Nassau County, January 29, 1987). In the context of most of the duties of most municipal boards, councils or similar bodies, there is no statute that forbids disclosure or requires confidentiality.

I hope that the foregoing serves to clarify your understanding and that I have been of assistance.

RJF:jm