Mr. Ricardo DiRose
Pine City, NY 14871
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, unless otherwise indicated.
Dear Mr. DiRose:
I have received your recent letter, which reached this office on July 21. You have requested an advisory opinion concerning the Freedom of Information Law.
According to your letter, on October 6, you were found guilty of rules violations following a disciplinary hearing. Since the hearing was tape recorded, you requested and paid for a copy of the tapes, "which were to be mailed home for transcription with [your] typewriter." In December, the Department of Correctional Services "reversed the decision and ordered a new hearing." You were found guilty again, and that decision was affirmed on appeal. In preparation for litigation, you wrote that "it was discovered that there were no hearing tapes in the mailed home typewriter box." Consequently, you requested duplicate copies of the tapes. In response to the request, you were initially informed that the tapes no longer existed. However, the response to your appeal, a copy of which was sent to this office, indicates that "the requested tape is part of an expunged disciplinary proceeding", and "[t]herefore, the requested record is deemed not to exist." You have questioned the propriety of the denial.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, assuming that the tape recordings exist, I believe that they would constitute "records" subject to the Freedom of Information Law, even if they are "sealed" and despite the claim that they are "deemed not to exist." It is emphasized that the Freedom of Information Law pertains to agency records and that §86(4) of the Law defines the term "record" expansively 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." In a case in which an agency claimed, in essence, that it could choose which documents it considered to be "records" for purposes of the Freedom of Information Law, the state's highest court rejected that contention. As stated by the Court of Appeals:
"...respondents' construction -- permitting an agency to engage in a unilateral prescreening of those documents which it deems to be outside the scope of FOIL -- would be inconsistent with the process set forth in the statute. In enacting FOIL, the Legislature devised a detailed system to insure that although FOIL's scope is broadly defined to include all governmental records, there is a means by which an agency may properly withhold from disclosure records found to be exempt (see, Public Officers Law §87; §89,. Thus, FOIL provides that a request for access may be denied by an agency in writing pursuant to Public Officers Law §89(3) to prevent an unwarranted invasion of privacy (see, Public Officers Law §89) or for one of the other enumerated reasons for exemption (see, Public Officers Law §87). A party seeking disclosure may challenge the agency's assertion of an exemption by appealing within the agency pursuant to Public Officers Law §89(4)(a). In the event that the denial of access is upheld on the internal appeal, the statute specifically authorizes a proceeding to obtain judicial review pursuant to CPLR article 78 (see, Public Officers Law §89[b]). Respondents' construction, if followed, would allow an agency to bypass this statutory process. An agency could simply remove documents which, in its opinion, were not within the scope of the FOIL, thereby obviating the need to articulate a specific exemption and avoiding review of its action. Thus, respondents' construction would render much of the statutory exemption and review procedure ineffective; to adopt this construction would be contrary to the accepted principle that a statute should be interpreted so as to give effect to all of its provisions...
"...as a practical matter, the procedure permitting an unreviewable prescreening of documents -- which respondents urge us to engraft on the statute -- could be used by an uncooperative and obdurate public official or agency to block an entirely legitimate FOIL request. There would be no way to prevent a custodian of records from removing a public record from FOIL's reach by simply labeling it 'purely private'. Such a construction, which could thwart the entire objective of FOIL by creating an easy means of avoiding compliance, should be rejected" [Capital Newspapers v. Whalen, 69 NY 2d 246, 253-254 (1987)].
If they continue to exist, a claim that the tapes are not records subject to the Freedom of Information Law would in my opinion clearly conflict with the interpretation of that statute by the State's highest court.
Second, in my opinion, an assertion or claim of confidentiality, unless it is based upon a statute, is likely meaningless. When confidentiality is conferred by a statute, an act of the State Legislature or Congress, records fall outside the scope of rights of access pursuant to §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, which states that an agency may withhold records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute". If there is no statute upon which an agency can rely to characterize records as "confidential" or "exempted from disclosure", the records are subject to whatever rights of access exist under the Freedom of Information Law [see Doolan v.BOCES, 48 NY 2d 341 (1979); Washington Post v. Insurance Department, 61 NY 2d 557 (1984); Gannett News Service, Inc. v. State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, 415 NYS 2d 780 (1979)]. As such, an assertion of confidentiality without more, would not in my view serve to enable an agency to justify withholding a record. In this instance, I am unaware of any statute that would render the report exempted from disclosure by statute. It is also noted that it has been held that a rule or regulation promulgated by an agency cannot be cited as a "statute" that would serve to exempt records from disclosure [see Morris v. Martin, Chairman of the State Board of Equalization and Assessment, 440 NYS 2d 365, 82 AD 2d 965, reversed 55 NY 2d 1026 (1982) and Zuckerman v. NYS Board of Parole, 385 NYS 2d 811, 53 AD 2d 405 (1976)].
Third, 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 §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law. In this instance, the records in question pertain to you, and a determination was previously made to disclose them to you. While the Department could likely withhold the tapes if requested by others (perhaps on the ground that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy), I do not believe your rights of access would change because the determination arising out the hearing was reversed. In short, it does not appear that any of the grounds for denial could properly be asserted to withhold the tapes from you.
Lastly, the decision rendered in Moore v. Santucci [151 AD 2d 677 (1989)] may be relevant to the situation that you described. In Moore, it was found that:
"...if the petitioner or his attorney previously received a copy of the agency record pursuant to an alternative discovery device and currently possesses the copy, a court may uphold an agency's denial of the petitioner's request under the FOIL for a duplicate copy as academic. However, the burden of proof rests with the agency to demonstrate that the petitioner's specific requests are moot. The respondent's burden would be satisfied upon proof that a copy of the requested record was previously furnished to the petitioner or his counsel in the absence of any allegation, in evidentiary form, that the copy was no longer in existence. In the event the petitioner's request for a copy of a specific record is not moot, the agency must furnish another copy upon payment of the appropriate fee...unless the requested record falls squarely within the ambit of 1 of the 8 statutory exemptions" (id., 678).
Although the Department determined to disclose the tapes to you, presumably pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law, based on the information that you provided, it appears that the Department would be required to make the records available again in response to a second request in accordance with the holding in Moore.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Anthony J. Annucci