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January 31, 1995

 

 

Ms. Susan G. Mick
510 Matthew Street
Elmira, NY 14901

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 Ms. Mick:

I have received your letter of December 21, which reached this office on December 28. You have sought assistance in relation to a request made under the Freedom of Information Law to the Department of Correctional Services.

Having reviewed the materials attached to your letter, I offer the following comments.

First, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records, and §89(3) of the Law states in part that an agency need not create a record in response to a request. Similarly, although agency officials are obligated to disclose records required by the Freedom of Information Law, they are not required to provide information by answering questions. For instance, if no records exist indicating "why [an] individual was in the room" at a certain time, or if there is no list indicating the number of candidates interviewed by a certain employee, including a breakdown of the candidates by sex, age and race, agency staff would not be required to create or prepare records containing the information sought on your behalf.

Second, insofar as records exist, 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.

Relevant with respect to several areas of your request is §87(2)(b), which authorizes an agency to withhold records or portions thereof to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Additionally, §89(2)(b) provides a series of examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy. In my view, although various aspects of records concerning the public employees or their backgrounds may be withheld, other portions of those documents must be disclosed.

While the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public officers employees. It is clear that public officers and employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public officers and employees are required to be more accountable than others. Further, with regard to records pertaining to public officers and employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a their 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].

Also relevant to an analysis of rights of access to records pertaining to public employees is §87(2)(g). That provision permits an agency to 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.

In conjunction with the foregoing and certain aspects of your request, dates of public employment, as well as promotions would, in my opinion, be available. I believe that unsubstantiated complaints could be withheld on the ground that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. With regard to evaluations of performance, a typical evaluation contains three components. One involves a description of the duties to be performed by a person holding a particular position, or perhaps a series of criteria reflective of the duties or goals to be achieved by a person holding that position. Insofar as evaluations contain information analogous to that described, I believe that those portions would be available. In terms of privacy, a duties description or statement of goals would clearly be relevant to the performance of the official duties of the incumbent of the position. Further, that kind of information generally relates to the position and would pertain to any person who holds that position. As such, I believe that disclosure would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. A duties description or statement of goals would be reflective of the policy of an agency regarding the performance standards inherent in a position and, therefore, in my view, would be available under §87(2)(g)(iii). It might also be considered factual information available under §87(2)(g)(i). The second component involves a reviewer's subjective analysis or opinion of how well or poorly the standards or duties have been carried out or the goals have been achieved. In my opinion, that aspect of an evaluation could be withheld, both as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and under §87(2)(g), on the ground that it constitutes an opinion concerning performance. A third possible component is often a final rating, i.e., "good", "excellent", "average", etc. Any such final rating would in my opinion be available, assuming that any appeals have been exhausted, for it would constitute a final agency determination available under §87(2)(g)(iii), particularly if monetary award is based upon a rating. Moreover, a final rating concerning a public employee's performance is relevant to that person's official duties and therefore would not in my view result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy if disclosed.

With regard to the qualifications of a public employee, if, for example, an individual must have certain types of experience, educational accomplishments, licenses or certifications as a condition precedent to serving in a particular position, records containing those kinds of information would in my view be relevant to the performance of the official duties of not only the individual to whom the record pertains, but also the appointing agency or officers. In a different context, when a civil service examination is given, those who pass are identified in "eligible lists" which have long been available to the public. By reviewing an eligible list, the public can determine whether persons employed by government have passed the appropriate examinations and met whatever qualifications that might serve as conditions precedent to employment. In my opinion, to the extent that records sought contain information pertaining to the requirements that must have been met to hold a position, they should be disclosed, for I believe that disclosure of those aspects of documents would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Disclosure represents the only means by which the public can be aware of whether the incumbent of the position has met the requisite criteria for serving in that position.

Although some aspects of one's employment history may be withheld, the fact of a person's public employment is a matter of public record, for records identifying public employees, their titles and salaries must be prepared and made available under the Freedom of Information Law [see §87(3)(b)]. However, information included in a document that is irrelevant to criteria required for holding the position, such as grade point average, home address, social security number and the like, could in my opinion be deleted prior to disclosure of the remainder of a record to protect against an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

You also referred to letters of reference. As indicated earlier, §89(2)(b) provides a series of examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy, the first of which pertains to personal references of applicants for employment. Therefore, insofar as letters of reference would identify the authors of those documents, I believe that they could be withheld.

I hope that the foregoing serves to clarify your understanding of the Freedom of Information Law and that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: Mark E. Shepard