December 29, 2009
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 information presented in your correspondence.
We are in receipt of your request for an advisory opinion concerning the application of the Freedom of Information Law to records requested from the Empire State Development Corporation. Specifically, you requested a copy of a grant application and supporting documentation pertaining to a $1.6 million dollar grant awarded for the construction of a chicken slaughterhouse in the Village of New Square. In response, your request was denied based on §87(2)(c) of the Freedom of Information Law, in that disclosure of the requested records would “impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations”. In this regard, we offer the following comments.
First and perhaps most importantly, 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 (k) of the law. It is emphasized that the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the exceptions that follow. In our view, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence evidences recognition on the part of the Legislature that a single record or report, for example, might include portions that are available under the statute, as well as portions that might justifiably be withheld. That being so, we believe that it also imposes an obligation on an agency to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, might properly be withheld or deleted prior to disclosing the remainder.
The Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, confirmed its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law in Gould v. New York City Police Department, stating that:
"To ensure maximum access to government records, the 'exemptions are to be narrowly construed, with the burden resting on the agency to demonstrate that the requested material indeed qualifies for exemption' (Matter of Hanig v. State of New York Dept. of Motor Vehicles, 79 N.Y.2d 106, 109, 580 N.Y.S.2d 715, 588 N.E.2d 750 see, Public Officers Law § 89[b]). As this Court has stated, '[o]nly where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld' (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 N.Y.2d, 567, 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463)" [89 NY2d 267, 275 (1996)].
Just as significant, the Court in Gould repeatedly specified that a categorical denial of access to records is inconsistent with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law. In that case, the Police Department contended that complaint follow up reports could be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they fall within the exception regarding intra-agency materials, §87(2)(g), an exception different from that cited in response to your request. The Court, however, wrote that: "Petitioners contend that because the complaint follow-up reports contain factual data, the exemption does not justify complete nondisclosure of the reports. We agree" (id., 276), and stated as a general principle that "blanket exemptions for particular types of documents are inimical to FOIL's policy of open government" (id., 275). The Court also offered guidance to agencies and lower courts in determining rights of access and referred to several decisions it had previously rendered, stating that:
"...to invoke one of the exemptions of section 87(2), the agency must articulate 'particularized and specific justification' for not disclosing requested documents (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, supra, 47 N.Y.2d, at 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463). If the court is unable to determine whether withheld documents fall entirely within the scope of the asserted exemption, it should conduct an in camera inspection of representative documents and order disclosure of all nonexempt, appropriately redacted material (see, Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 N.Y.2d 131, 133, 490 N.Y.S. 2d, 488, 480 N.E.2d 74; Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., supra, 62 N.Y.2d, at 83, 476 N.Y.S.2d 69, 464 N.E.2d 437)" (id.).
In the context of your request, the ESDC has engaged in a blanket denial of access in a manner which, in our view, is equally inappropriate. Based on the direction given by the Court of Appeals in several decisions, the records must be reviewed by that agency for the purpose of identifying those portions of the records that might fall within the scope of one or more of the grounds for denial of access. As the Court stated later in the decision: "Indeed, the Police Department is entitled to withhold complaint follow-up reports, or specific portions thereof, under any other applicable exemption, such as the law-enforcement exemption or the public-safety exemption, as long as the requisite particularized showing is made" (id., 277; emphasis added).
In short, we believe that the blanket denial of the request was inconsistent with law.
Second, as indicated earlier, the provision upon which ESDC relied to deny access, §87(2)(c), permits an agency to deny access to records to the extent that disclosure "would impair present or imminent contract awards..." The key word in that provision in our opinion is "impair", and the question under that provision involves whether or the extent to which disclosure would "impair" the contracting process by diminishing the ability of the government to reach an optimal agreement on behalf of the taxpayers.
As we understand its application, §87(2)(c) generally encompasses situations in which an agency or a party to negotiations maintains records that have not been made available to others. For example, if an agency seeking bids or proposals has received a number of bids, but the deadline for their submission has not been reached, premature disclosure of those bids to another possible submitter might provide that person or firm with an unfair advantage vis a vis those who already submitted bids. Further, disclosure of the identities of bidders or the number of bidders might enable another potential bidder to tailor a bid in a manner that provides him with an unfair advantage in the bidding process. In such a situation, harm or "impairment" would likely be the result, and the records could justifiably be denied.
In a decision rendered more than twenty-five years ago, however, it was held that after the deadline for submission of bids or proposals has been reached and a contract has been awarded, "the successful bidder had no reasonable expectation of not having its bid open to the public" [Contracting Plumbers Cooperative Restoration Corp. v. Ameruso, 105 Misc. 2d 951, 430 NYS 2d 196, 198 (1980)]. Conversely, the Court of Appeals sustained the assertion of §87(2)(c) in Murray v. Troy Urban Renewal Agency [56 NY2d 888 (1982)], in which the issue pertained to real property transactions where appraisals in possession of an agency were requested prior to the consummation of a transaction. Because premature disclosure would have enabled the public to know the prices the agency sought, thereby potentially precluding the agency from receiving optimal prices, the agency's denial was upheld [see Murray v. Troy Urban Renewal Agency, 56 NY 2d 888 (1982)].
In the case of your request, you indicated that an award was made. As stated in Contracting Plumbers, supra, and confirmed in a case involving a request for a copy of a successful proposal following an award, “Once the contract was awarded...the terms of [the] RFP response could no longer be competitively sensitive” [Cross-Sound Ferry v. Department of Transportation, 219 AD2d 346, 634 NYS2d 575, 577 (1995)]. When an agreement was reached and an award determined, the records that you requested would be required to be made available to the public; in our opinion, no longer would disclosure in any way “impair” the ability of the ESDC to reach a fair and optimal agreement on behalf of the public.
Finally, we note a recent decision from the Court of Appeals in which ESDC was ordered to disclose records to which it had denied access based on little or no explanation (In the Matter of West Harlem Business Group v. Empire Development Corporation, 2009 NY Slip Op 09268, December 15, 2009). The Court held that ESDC failed to “fully explain in writing” the reasons for denial as required by the Freedom of Information Law and supported its motion to dismiss the petition with “conclusory characterizations” of the records, which were insufficient to meet its burden of establishing that the documents were exempt from disclosure.
On behalf of the Committee on Open Government, we hope that this is helpful. In an effort to enhance understanding of and compliance with the Freedom of Information Law, copies of these opinions will be forwarded to ESDC.
cc: Antovk Pidedjian