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February 3, 1993

 

Mr. Harry S. Gross
3301 Robbin Lane
Merrick, NY 11566

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. Gross:

I have received your letter of January 19, as well as the correspondence attached to it.

As "Freedom of Information Officer for the State", you asked that I review your letter of request directed to the New York City Board of Education on March 24, 1992 and offer recommendations concerning your rights under the Freedom of Information Law. Although the letter to which you referred was not included among the materials that you sent, I have reviewed the remaining documentation, including responses to the request rendered by Board officials.

It is noted at the outset that the primary function of this office involves providing advice concerning the Freedom of Information Law. The Committee cannot enforce the law or compel an agency to grant or deny access to records.

While the response of December 2 indicates that some of the records sought were disclosed, in several instances, it was indicated that the requested records do not exist. In this regard, it is emphasized that the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records. Section 89(3) of the Law states in part that an agency is not required to create a record in response to a request. Therefore, if, for example, there is no list of attendance teachers seeking appointments who were present at a particular location on a certain date, the Board would not be required to create such a list on your behalf. Similarly, although the Freedom of Information Law requires agencies to respond to requests for existing records and disclose those records in accordance with its provisions, that statute is not a vehicle that requires agencies to provide information by responding to questions. Certainly agency officials may offer responses to questions. However, the Freedom of Information Law does not require that they do so. Rather than requesting lists that may not exist or seeking information by raising questions, it is suggested that you request existing records.

One area of the response involved records pertaining to complaints made to the Board's Inspector General regarding an employee of the Board. Although I am unaware of the outcome of any such investigation, I offer the following comments.

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 section 87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law.

Section 87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law authorizes an agency to withhold records when disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Although the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public employees. First, it is clear that public employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public employees are required to be more accountable than others. Second, with regard to records pertaining to public employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a public employee' s official duties are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NY 2d 954 (1978); Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty., March 25, 1981; Montes v. State, 406 NYS 2d 664 (Court of Claims, 1978); Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); Scaccia v. NYS Division of State Police, 530 NYS 2d 309, 138 AD 2d 50 (1988); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)]. Conversely, to the extent that records are irrelevant to the performance of one's official duties, it has been found that disclosure would indeed constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Matter of Wool, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., NYLJ, Nov. 22, 1977].

Several of the decisions cited above, for example, Farrell, Sinicropi, Geneva Printing, Scaccia and Powhida, dealt with situations in which determinations indicating the imposition of some sort of disciplinary action pertaining to particular public employees were found to be available. However, when allegations or charges of misconduct have not yet been determined or did not result in disciplinary action, the records relating to such allegations may, in my view, be withheld, for disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Herald Company v. School District of City of Syracuse, 430 NYS 2d 460 (1980)]. Further, to the extent that charges are dismissed or allegations are found to be without merit, I believe that they may be withheld.

Further, 87(2)(g) 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 noted 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. Records prepared in conjunction with an investigation would in my view constitute intra-agency materials. Insofar as they consist of opinions, advice, conjecture, recommendations and the like, I believe that they could be withheld. However, factual information would in my view be available, except to the extent that it falls within a different ground for denial. Findings and conclusions may be available when they constitute final agency determinations.

Lastly, you questioned a portion of a response of December 18 indicating that "some documents that are not accessible under the Freedom of Information Act [sic] may be generated for purposes of litigation." In this regard, the initial ground for denial, §87(2)(a), pertains to records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." One such statute is §3101(d) of the Civil Practice Law and Rules, which exempts material prepared for litigation from disclosure. Similarly, §3101(c) exempts attorney work product from disclosure. However, when records were prepared or acquired in the ordinary course of business, rather than for any purpose relating to litigation, I do not believe that either §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law or §3101(c) or (d) of the Civil Practice Law and Rules would apply. Further, it has been determined judicially that if records are prepared for multiple purposes, one of which includes eventual use in litigation, §3101(d) does not serve as a basis for withholding records; only when records are prepared solely for litigation can §3101(d) be properly asserted to deny access to records [see e.g., Westchester-Rockland Newspapers v. Mosczydlowski, 58 AD 2d 234 (1977)].

Additionally, as stated by the Court of Appeals in a case involving a request made under the Freedom of Information Law by a person involved in litigation against an agency: "Access to records of a government agency under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) (Public Officers Law, Article 6) is not affected by the fact that there is pending or potential litigation between the person making the request and the agency" [Farbman v. NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, 62 NY 2d 75, 78 (1984)]. Similarly, in an earlier decision, the Court of Appeals determined that "the standing of one who seeks access to records under the Freedom of Information Law is as a member of the public, and is neither enhanced...nor restricted...because he is also a litigant or potential litigant" [Matter of John P. v. Whalen, 54 NY 2d 89, 99 (1980)]. The Court in Farbman, supra, discussed the distinction between the use of the Freedom of Information Law as opposed to the use of discovery in Article 31 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Specifically, it was found that:

"FOIL does not require that the party requesting records make any showing of need, good faith or legitimate purpose; while its purpose may be to shed light on governmental decision-making, its ambit is not confined to records actually used in the decision-making process (Matter of Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581.) Full disclosure by public agencies is, under FOIL, a public right and in the public interest, irrespective of the status or need of the person making the request.

"CPLR article 31 proceeds under a different premise, and serves quite different concerns. While speaking also of 'full disclosure' article 31 is plainly more restrictive than FOIL. Access to records under CPLR depends on status and need. With goals of promoting both the ascertainment of truth at trial and the prompt disposition of actions (Allen v. Crowell-Collier Pub. Co., 21 NY 2d 403, 407), discovery is at the outset limited to that which is 'material and necessary in the prosecution or defense of an action'" [see Farbman, supra, at 80].

Based upon the foregoing, the pendency of litigation would not, in my opinion, affect either the rights of the public or a litigant under the Freedom of Information Law.

I hope that I have been of some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: Bruce Gelbard, Secretary
Ruth Bernstein, Deputy Records Access Officer