August 12, 2009
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.
As you are aware, I have received your letter and the correspondence relating to it. You have sought an advisory opinion concerning your efforts in obtaining certain records from the State Senate.
By way of background, citing §88 of the Freedom of Information Law, you wrote on March 12 to the Senate public information officer and requested, “in electronic format (preferably a text format such as Word, or in a spreadsheet format such as Excel)”, the “most current New York State Senate ‘press list’ detailing all staff salaries.” The receipt of your request was acknowledged on March 17, and you were informed that the record is “available in hard copy” and would be forwarded to you upon payment of $9.50, 38 pages at $.25 per page. You responded the next day, again asking that the material be made available in an “electronic record.” On March 24, the Secretary of the Senate acknowledged receipt of your letter and indicated that you would receive a response within ten business days. Not having received a further response, you again wrote to Mr. Aponte, who reiterated that the record sought “is available in hard copy” and that it “will not be provided in an electronic format.”
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law is expansive, for it includes all records maintained by an agency or the State Legislature within its scope and defines the term “record” to mean:
"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."
Based on the foregoing, records, in whatever format or medium in which they may be kept, fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law.
Second, the record that you requested is among the few that must be “maintained” by the Senate and the Assembly. Section 88(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states that “Each house shall maintain and make available for public inspection and copying....(b) a record setting forth the name, public office address, title and salary of every officer or employee.”
Third, while I am unfamiliar with the means by which the record of your interested is stored, I believe that it can be assumed in most instances that records are now commonly prepared or generated on computers, as in the case of this response, which is being drafted on a pc. Once a record is prepared and stored electronically, it can be transferred to an electronic storage medium, i.e., a disk, or transmitted electronically, i.e., via email.
Moreover, as you pointed out, the Freedom of Information Law has been amended to require that records be made available via email. Section 89(3)(b) states in relevant part that: “All entities shall, provided such entity has reasonable means available, accept records submitted in the form of electronic mail and shall respond to such requests by electronic mail...” That being so, assuming that it has the ability to do so, the entity in question, the State Senate, must email the record at issue in response to your request that it do so in order to comply with law.
Additionally, prior to the enactment of amendments to the Freedom of Information Law dealing with email, judicial decisions indicated that entities subject to that statute must make records available in the medium of the applicant’s choice, when those entities had the capacity to do so with reasonable effort. For instance in Brownstone Publishers Inc. v. New York City Department of Buildings, the agency offered to make available a printout, and the question involved the agency's obligation to transfer electronic information from one electronic storage medium to another when it had the technical capacity to do so and when the applicant was willing to pay the actual cost of the transfer. As stated by the Appellate Division:
"The files are maintained in a computer format that Brownstone can employ directly into its system, which can be reproduced on computer tapes at minimal cost in a few hours time-a cost Brownstone agreed to assume (see, POL [section] 87 [b] [iii]). The DOB, apparently intending to discourage this and similar requests, agreed to provide the information only in hard copy, i.e., printed out on over a million sheets of paper, at a cost of $10,000 for the paper alone, which would take five or six weeks to complete. Brownstone would then have to reconvert the data into computer-usable form at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Public Officers Law [section] 87(2) provides that, 'Each agency shall...make available for public inspection and copying all records...' Section 86(4) includes in its definition of 'record', computer tapes or discs. The policy underlying the FOIL is 'to insure maximum public access to government records' (Matter of Scott, Sardano & Pomerantz v. Records Access Officer, 65 N.Y.2d 294, 296-297, 491 N.Y.S.2d 289, 480 N.E.2d 1071). Under the circumstances presented herein, it is clear that both the statute and its underlying policy require that the DOB comply with Brownstone's reasonable request to have the information, presently maintained in computer language, transferred onto computer tapes" [166 Ad 2d, 294, 295 (1990)].
Additionally, in a decision that cited Brownstone, it was held that: "[a]n agency which maintains in a computer format information sought by a F.O.I.L. request may be compelled to comply with the request to transfer information to computer disks or tape" (Samuel v. Mace, Supreme Court, Monroe County, December 11, 1992). That decision involved a request for a school district wide mailing list in the form of computer generated mailing labels. Since the district had the ability to generate the labels, the court ordered it to do so.
Next, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date, which shall be reasonable under the circumstances of the request, when such request will be granted or denied...”
It is noted that new language was added to that provision in 2005 stating that:
“If circumstances prevent disclosure to the person requesting the record or records within twenty business days from the date of the acknowledgement of the receipt of the request, the agency shall state, in writing, both the reason for the inability to grant the request within twenty business days and a date certain within a reasonable period, depending on the circumstances, when the request will be granted in whole or in part.”
Based on the foregoing, an entity must grant access to records, deny access in writing, or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days of receipt of a request. When an acknowledgement is given, it must include an approximate date within twenty business days indicating when it can be anticipated that a request will be granted or denied. However, if it is known that circumstances prevent the entity from granting access within twenty business days, or if the agency cannot grant access by the approximate date given and needs more than twenty business days to grant access, it must provide a written explanation of its inability to do so and a specific date by which it will grant access. That date must be reasonable in consideration of the circumstances of the request.
The amendments clearly are intended to prohibit entities from unnecessarily delaying disclosure. They are not intended to permit agencies to wait until the fifth business day following the receipt of a request and then twenty additional business days to determine rights of access, unless it is reasonable to do so based upon “the circumstances of the request.” From my perspective, every law must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent, and I point out that in its statement of legislative intent, §84 of the Freedom of Information Law states that "it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible." Therefore, when records are clearly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law, or if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has asserted:
"...the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such objectives cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to bring them about permeate the body politic to a point where they become the rule rather than the exception. The phrase 'public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' therefore merely punctuates with explicitness what in any event is implicit" [Westchester News v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 579 (1980)].
In a judicial decision concerning the reasonableness of a delay in disclosure that cited and confirmed the advice rendered by this office concerning reasonable grounds for delaying disclosure, it was held that:
“The determination of whether a period is reasonable must be made on a case by case basis taking into account the volume of documents requested, the time involved in locating the material, and the complexity of the issues involved in determining whether the materials fall within one of the exceptions to disclosure. Such a standard is consistent with some of the language in the opinions, submitted by petitioners in this case, of the Committee on Open Government, the agency charged with issuing advisory opinions on FOIL”(Linz v. The Police Department of the City of New York, Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, December 17, 2001).
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, if an entity delays responding for an unreasonable time beyond the approximate date of less than twenty business days given in its acknowledgement, if it acknowledges that a request has been received, but has failed to grant access by the specific date given beyond twenty business days, or if the specific date given is unreasonable, a request may be considered to have been constructively denied [see §89(4)(a)]. In such a circumstance, the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a), which states in relevant part that:
"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
Section 89(4)(b) was also amended, and it states that a failure to determine an appeal within ten business days of the receipt of an appeal constitutes a denial of the appeal. In that circumstance, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Angelo J. Aponte