January 6, 1993
Mr. Peter W. Sluys
Community Media Inc.
25 W. Central Avenue, Box 93
Pearl River, N.Y. 10965
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 Mr. Sluys:
I have received your letter of December 24 which pertains to requests for records directed to the Clarkstown School District.
You wrote that you have made several requests which have been characterized by the District as "voluminous", and you asked whether the District "is justified in delaying the release of material...beyond the time set forth in the statute". You also raised a question concerning the number of hours billed to the District by its law firm.
First, it is emphasized that §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law also states that an applicant must "reasonably describe" the records sought. It has been held that a request reasonably describes the records when the agency can locate and identify the records based on the terms of a request, and that to deny a request on the ground that it fails to reasonably describe the records, an agency must establish that "the descriptions were insufficient for purposes of locating and identifying the documents sought" [Konigsberg v. Coughlin, 68 NY 2d 245, 249 (1986)].
Although it was found in the decision cited above that the agency could not reject the request due to its breadth, it was also stated that:
"respondents have failed to supply any proof whatsoever as to the nature - or even the existence - of their indexing system: whether the Department's files were indexed in a manner that would enable the identification and location of documents in their possession (cf. National Cable Tel. Assn. v. Federal Communications Commn., 479 F2D 183, 192 [Bazelon, J.] [plausible claim of nonidentifiability under Federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 USC section 552 (a)(3), may be presented where agency's indexing system was such that 'the requested documents could not be identified by retracing a path already trodden. It would have required a wholly new enterprise, potentially requiring a search of every file in the possession of the agency'])" (id. at 250).
In my view, whether a request reasonably describes the records sought, as suggested by the Court of Appeals, may be dependent upon the terms of a request, as well as the nature of an agency's filing system. In Konigsberg, it appears that the agency was able to locate the records on the basis of an inmate's name and identification number.
In the context of your requests, I must admit to being unfamiliar with the record-keeping systems of the District; whether it has the ability to locate and identify the records sought in the manner in which you requested them is unknown to me.
Second, although the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which an agency must respond to requests, it does not include any provision that specifies a period within which records must be disclosed. As indicated in my letter to you of December 30, §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 when such request will be granted or denied..."
While an agency must grant access to records, deny access or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days, when such acknowledgement is given, there is no precise time period within which an agency must grant or deny access to records. The time needed to do so may be dependent upon the volume of a request, the possibiliity that other requests have been made, the necessity to conduct legal research, the search and retrieval techniques used to locate the records and the like. In short, when an agency acknowledges the receipt of a request because more than five business days may be needed to grant or deny a request, so long as it provides an approximate date indicating when the request will be granted or denied, and that date is reasonable in view of the attendant circumstances, I believe that the agency would be acting in compliance with law.
Your final question, which involves records of billings by a law firm, was addressed in a previous response. I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Dr. John Krause