Mr. Wallace S. Nolen
Ogdensburg Correctional Facility
One Correctional Way
Ogdensburg, NY 13669-2288
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. Nolen:
I have received your letter of November 26 in which you sought an advisory opinion concerning a response to your request for records by the Department of Correctional Services. Since receipt of your letter, the Department, as required by law, forwarded copies of your appeal and its determination.
Much of the response to your appeal relates implicitly to §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law and the requirement that a request "reasonably describe" the records sought. As suggested at greater lengthy in our previous correspondence, whether a request meets that standard may be dependent on the ability of an agency to identify the records sought and the nature of an agency's record-keeping or filing systems.
With regard to records relating to grievances and related matters, as you are aware, 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.
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 §50-a of the Civil Rights Law. In brief, that statute provides that personnel records of police and correction officers that are used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion are confidential. It has been found that the exemption from disclosure conferred by §50-a of the Civil Rights Law "was designed to limit access to said personnel records by criminal defense counsel, who used the contents of the records, including unsubstantiated and irrelevant complaints against officers, to embarrass officers during cross-examination" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 652, 568 (1986)].
In another decision, which dealt with unsubstantiated complaints against correction officers, the Court of Appeals held that the purpose of §50-a "was to prevent the release of sensitive personnel records that could be used in litigation for purposes of harassing or embarrassing correction officers" [Prisoners' Legal Services v. NYS Department of Correctional Services, 73 NY 2d 26, 538 NYS 2d 190, 191 (1988)].
Aside from §50-a, other grounds for denial appearing in the Freedom of Information Law are pertinent to an analysis of rights of access.
For instance, §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." 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. Based upon judicial interpretations of the Freedom of Information Law, 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. Further, 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, supra]. 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].
Another ground for denial of significance, §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. Many of the records sought likely consist of intra-agency materials.
In terms of the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law, I point out that in situations in which allegations or charges have resulted in the issuance of a written reprimand, disciplinary action, or findings that public employees have engaged in misconduct, records reflective of those kinds of determinations have been found to be available, including the names of those who are the subjects of disciplinary action [see Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); also Farrell, Geneva Printing, Scaccia and Sinicropi, supra]. Three of those decisions, Powhida, Scaccia and Farrell, involved findings of misconduct concerning police officers. Further, Scaccia dealt specifically with a determination by the Division of State Police to discipline a state police investigator. In that case, the Court rejected contentions that the record could be withheld as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy or on the basis of §50-a of the Civil Rights Law.
It is also noted, however, that in Scaccia, it was found that although a final determination reflective of a finding of misconduct is public, the records leading to the determination could be withheld. Further, 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., Prisoners' Legal Services, supra; also Herald Company v. School District of City of Syracuse, 430 NYS 2d 460 (1980)]. Therefore, to the extent that charges are dismissed or allegations are found to be without merit, I believe that the records related to and including such charges or allegations may be withheld.
Lastly, with regard to records concerning inmates, in addition to the Freedom of Information Law, a section of the regulations promulgated by the Department of Correctional Services requires the disclosure of a variety of information to the news media about inmates. Section 5.21 of the regulations provides in relevant part that:
"Upon request by the news media, the following information from an inmate record shall be made available: name, age, birthdate, birthplace, city of previous residence, physical description, commitment information, present facility in which housed, departmental actions regarding confinement and release, and when related to a newsworthy event, institutional work assignments, general state of health, nature of injury or critical illness and cause of death."
I point out that the news media has no special rights under the Freedom of Information Law and that the same information would be available to any person.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman