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June 24, 1994

 

Ms. Lynda Garner Goldstein
Legislature - 14th District
2286 Westfall Road
Rochester, NY 14618

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 Ms. Goldstein:

I have received your letter of June 8 and the materials attached to it. Among the materials is a copy of The Legislative Insider, which is published by the Monroe County Legislature Majority Office.

It is your view that the preparation and distribution of that publication represents a inappropriate use of taxpayer funds. To bolster that contention, you sought a copy of the mailing list used to disseminate the publication under the Freedom of Information Law. On February 7, the County's records access officer acknowledged the receipt of your request and estimated that approximately fifteen business days would be needed to respond. He added that if more time would be needed, you would be notified in writing. You wrote that he then contacted you, stating that "he could not release the information without assurances that [you were] not going to use the requested information for fund raising purposes". Despite your immediate response with such an assurance, no determination had been made as of the date of your letter to this office.

You have requested an advisory opinion on the matter. In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, 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.

As a general matter, when records are accessible under the Freedom of Information Law, it has been held that they should be made equally available to any person, regardless of one's status, interest or the intended use of the records [see Burke v. Yudelson, 368 NYS 2d 779, aff'd 51 AD 2d 673, 378 NYS 2d 165 (1976)]. Moreover, the Court of Appeals, the State's highest court, has held 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 government 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" [Farbman v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984)].

The only exception to the principles described above involves one provision pertaining to the protection of personal privacy. By way of background, §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Further, §89(2)(b) of the Law provides a series of examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy, one of which pertains to:

"sale or release of lists of names and addresses if such lists would be used for commercial or fund-raising purposes" [§89(2)(b)(iii)].

The provision quoted above represents what might be viewed as an internal conflict in the law. As indicated earlier, the status of an applicant and the purposes for which a request is made are irrelevant to rights of access, and an agency cannot ordinarily inquire as to the intended use of records. However, due to the language of §89(2)(b)(iii), rights of access to a list of names and addresses, or equivalent records, may be contingent upon the purpose for which a request is made [see Scott, Sardano & Pomeranz v. Records Access Officer of Syracuse, 65 NY 2d 294, 491 NYS 2d 289 (1985); Goodstein v. Shaw, 463 NYS 2d 162 (1983)].

In a case involving a list of names and addresses in which the agency inquired as to the purpose of which the list was requested, it was found that an agency could make such an inquiry. Specifically, in Golbert v. Suffolk County Department of Consumer Affairs (Supreme Court, Suffolk County, September 5, 1980), the Court cited and apparently relied upon an opinion rendered by this office in which it was advised that an agency may appropriately require that an applicant for a list of names and addresses provide an assurance that a list of names and addresses will not be used for commercial or fund-raising purposes. In that decision, it was stated that:

"The Court agrees with petitioner's attorney that nowhere in the record does it appear that petitioner intends to use the information sought for commercial or fund-raising purposes. However, the reason for that deficiency in the record is that all efforts by respondents to receive petitioner's assurance that the information sought would not be so used apparently were unsuccessful. Without that assurance the respondents could reasonably infer that petitioner did want to use the information for commercial or fund-raising purposes."

In addition, it was held that:

"[U]nder the circumstances, the Court finds that it was not unreasonable for respondents to require petitioner to submit a certification that the information sought would not be used for commercial purposes. Petitioner has failed to establish that the respondents denial or petitioner's request for information constituted an abuse of discretion as a matter of law, and the Court declines to substitute its judgement for that of the respondents" (id.).

In this instance, since you apparently provided assurances that the list would not be used for commercial or fund-raising purposes, I believe that the list must be disclosed. Such a list would not divulge intimate personal information about those whose names are included. When a list of names and addresses pertains to individuals bearing certain characteristics (i.e., race or ethnicity, age, medical condition, interest in certain health related matters, etc.), disclosure of names associated with those characteristics would likely constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, irrespective of the intended use of a list. Nevertheless, there is no indication that the list that you seek would identify individuals by means of an association with a characteristic of an intimate or highly personal nature. In short, again, there appears to be no basis for withholding the list.

Second, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of that statute 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..."

If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied. Similarly, if an agency acknowledges the receipt of a request but fails to provide a "statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied," the agency in my view would have failed to comply with §89(3). In an analogous situation in which the court found that a request was constructively denied, it was stated that:

"The acknowledgement letters in this proceeding neither granted nor denied petitioner's request nor approximated a determination date. Rather, the letters were open ended as to time as they stated, 'that a period of time would be required to ascertain whether such documents do exist, and if they did, whether they qualify for inspection'.

"This court finds that respondent's actions and/or inactions placed petitioner in a 'Catch 22' position. The petitioner, relying on the respondent's representation, anticipated a determination to her request. While the petitioner may have been well advised to seek an appeal...this court finds that this petitioner should not be penalized for respondent's failure to comply with Public Officers Law §89(3), especially when petitioner was advised by respondent that a decision concerning her application would be forthcoming...

"It should also be noted that petitioner did not sit idle during this period but rather made numerous efforts to obtain a decision from respondent including the submission of a follow up letter to the Records Access Officer and submission of various requests for said records with the different offices of the Department of Transportation.

"Therefore, this court finds that respondent is estopped from asserting that this proceeding is improper due to petitioner's failure to appeal the denial of access to records within 30 days to the agency head, as provided in Public Officers Law §89(4)(a)" (Bernstein v. City of New York, Supreme Court, NYLJ, November 7, 1990).

When a request is constructively denied or denied in writing, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision 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."

In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, 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 [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d 774 (1982)].

Lastly, it is noted that the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government (21 NYCRR Part 1401) specify that that the records access officer and the person who determines appeals cannot be the same individual [see regulations, §1401.7(b)].

I hope that I have been of some assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to contact me.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:pb

cc: John Riley, Records Access Officer
County Attorney