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December 14, 1994

 

 

Mr. Kevin W. Smyth
The Nursing Spectrum
PO Box 337
Wauconda, IL 60084

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.

Dear Mr. Smyth:

As you are aware, your letter to the Chancellor of the Board of Regents, a copy which was sent to the Attorney General, has been forwarded to the Committee on Open Government. The Committee on Open Government is authorized to provide advice concerning the New York's Freedom of Information Law.

Your letter and the materials attached to it involve difficulties that you faced in your attempt to obtain a list of licensed nurses. In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to all agency records and 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.

Second, 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 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)].

Farbman pertained to a situation in which a person involved in litigation against an agency requested records from that agency under the Freedom of Information Law. In brief, it was found that one's status as a litigant had no effect upon that person's right as a member of the public when using the Freedom of Information Law, irrespective of the intended use of the records. Similarly, unless there is a basis for withholding records in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2), the use of the records, including the potential for commercial use, is in my opinion irrelevant; when records are accessible, once they are disclosed, the recipient may do with the records as he or she sees fit.

Third, the only exception to the principles described above involves 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 or the purposes for which a request is made are irrelevant to rights of access, and an agency cannot 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); Federation of New York State Rifle and Pistol Clubs, Inc. v. New York City Police Dept., 73 NY 2d 92 (1989); 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 for 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 indication of the purpose for which a list is sought. 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.).

As such, there is precedent indicating that an agency may inquire with respect to the purpose of a request when the request involves a list of names and addresses. That situation, however, represents the only case under the Freedom of Information Law in which an agency may inquire as to the purpose for which a request is made, or in which the intended use of the record has a bearing upon rights of access.

Also of potential significance is the Personal Privacy Protection Law, which deals in part with the disclosure of records or personal information by state agencies concerning data subjects. A "data subject" is "any natural person about whom personal information has been collected by an agency" [Personal Privacy Protection Law, §92(3)]. "Personal information" is defined to mean "any information concerning a data subject which, because of name, number, symbol, mark or other identifier, can be used to identify that data subject" [§92(7)]. For purposes of the Personal Privacy Protection Law, the term "record" is defined to mean "any item, collection or grouping of personal information about a data subject which is maintained and is retrievable by use of the name or other identifier of the data subject" [§92(9)]. In most instances in which an agency seeks personal information from a data subject, it must inform that person of the routine uses and disclosures of the data [see Personal Privacy Protection Law, §94(1)(d)]. However, that requirement does not apply with regard to most functions relating to licensing.

With respect to disclosure, §96(1) of the Personal Privacy Protection Law states that "No agency may disclose any record or personal information", except in conjunction with a series of exceptions that follow. One of those exceptions involves when a record is "subject to article six of this chapter [the Freedom of Information Law], unless disclosure of such information would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy as defined in paragraph (a) of subdivision two of section eighty-nine of this chapter". Section 89(2-a) of the Freedom of Information Law states that "Nothing in this article shall permit disclosure which constitutes an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy as defined in subdivision two of this section if such disclosure is prohibited under section ninety-six of this chapter". Therefore, if a state agency cannot disclose records pursuant to §96 of the Personal Protection Law, it is precluded from disclosing under the Freedom of Information Law. Further, the foregoing in my opinion indicates that the relationship between the Freedom of Information Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law is somewhat circular and that, consequently, the sole question in many situations is whether the disclosure of the items in question would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

There are several judicial decisions, both New York State and federal, which in my opinion are relevant, that pertain to records about individuals in their business or professional capacities. For instance, one involved a request for the names and addresses of mink and ranch fox farmers from a state agency (ASPCA v. NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, Supreme Court, Albany County, May 10, 1989). In granting access, the court relied in part and quoted from an opinion rendered by this office in which it was advised that "the provisions concerning privacy in the Freedom of Information Law are intended to be asserted only with respect to 'personal' information relating to natural persons". The court held that:

"...the names and business addresses of individuals or entities engaged in animal farming for profit do not constitute information of a private nature, and this conclusion is not changed by the fact that a person's business address may also be the address of his or her residence. In interpreting the Federal Freedom of Information Law Act (5 USC 552), the Federal Courts have already drawn a distinction between information of a 'private' nature which may not be disclosed, and information of a 'business' nature which may be disclosed (see e.g., Cohen v. Environmental Protection Agency, 575 F Supp. 425 (D.C.D.C. 1983)."

In another more recent decision, Newsday, Inc. v. New York State Department of Health (Supreme Court, Albany County, October 15, 1991)], data acquired by the State Department of Health concerning the performance of open heart surgery by hospitals and individual surgeons was requested. Although the Department provided statistics relating to surgeons, it withheld their identities. In response to a request for an advisory opinion, it was advised by this office, based upon the New York Freedom of Information Law and judicial interpretations of the federal Freedom of Information Act, that the names should be disclosed. The court agreed and cited the opinion rendered by this office.

Like the Freedom of Information Law, the federal Act includes an exception to rights of access designed to protect personal privacy. Specifically, 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(6) states that rights conferred by the Act do not apply to "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." In construing that provision, federal courts have held that the exception:

"was intended by Congress to protect individuals from public disclosure of 'intimate details of their lives, whether the disclosure be of personnel files, medical files or other similar files'. Board of Trade of City of Chicago v. Commodity Futures Trading Com'n supra, 627 F.2d at 399, quoting Rural Housing Alliance v. U.S. Dep't of Agriculture, 498 F.2d 73, 77 (D.C. Cir. 1974); see Robles v. EOA, 484 F.2d 843, 845 (4th Cir. 1973). Although the opinion in Rural Housing stated that the exemption 'is phrased broadly to protect individuals from a wide range of embarrassing disclosures', 498 F.2d at 77, the context makes clear the court's recognition that the disclosures with which the statute is concerned are those involving matters of an intimate personal nature. Because of its intimate personal nature, information regarding 'marital status, legitimacy of children, identity of fathers of children, medical condition, welfare payment, alcoholic consumption, family fights, reputation, and so on' falls within the ambit of Exemption 4. Id. By contrast, as Judge Robinson stated in the Chicago Board of Trade case, 627 F.2d at 399, the decisions of this court have established that information connected with professional relationships does not qualify for the exemption" [Sims v. Central Intelligence Agency, 642 F.2d 562, 573-573 (1980)].

In Cohen, the decision cited in ASPCA v. Department of Agriculture and Markets, supra, it was stated pointedly that: "The privacy exemption does not apply to information regarding professional or business activities...This information must be disclosed even if a professional reputation may be tarnished" (supra, 429). Similarly in a case involving disclosure of those whose grant proposals were rejected, it was held that:

"The adverse effect of a rejection of a grant proposal, if it exists at all, is limited to the professional rather than personal qualities of the applicant. The district court spoke of the possibility of injury explicitly in terms of the applicants' 'professional reputation' and 'professional qualifications'. 'Professional' in such a context refers to the possible negative reflection of an applicant's performance in 'grantsmanship' - the professional competition among research scientists for grants; it obviously is not a reference to more serious 'professional' deficiencies such an unethical behavior. While protection of professional reputation, even in this strict sense, is not beyond the purview of exemption 6, it is not at its core" [Kurzon v. Department of Health and Human Services, 649 F.2d 65, 69 (1981)].

The standard in the New York Freedom of Information Law, as in the case of the federal Act, is subject to conflicting points of view, and reasonable people often differ with respect to issues concerning personal privacy. In this instance, the information in question, although identifiable to particular individuals, pertains solely to their roles as licensees acting in a business capacity. Unlike an individual's social security number or medical records identifiable to patients, which would involve unique and personal details of people's lives, the records in question are not "personal" in my opinion; rather, again, they deal with functions carried out by individuals in their capacities as persons licensed to do business for gain. In short, as suggested in the decisions cited above, the exception concerning privacy arguably does not extend to the kind of information at issue. If that is so, disclosure would not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

As suggested earlier, when a list involves persons licensed to engage in a certain kind of business and includes the address indicating where the licensed activity occurs, I believe that personal privacy implications are minimal, if they exist at all (see ASPCA, supra). A potential problem involves the address maintained by the Department. If it is a home address, it is possible that the Department could justify a denial of access.

I hope that I have been of some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:pb
cc: Gene Snay
Eric Braun