NY.gov Portal State Agency Listing

 

February 6, 1995

 

 

Mr. Robert E. Becker
620 Barnard Avenue
Woodmere, NY 11598

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. Becker:

I have received your letter of January 6 and a variety of materials attached to it. You have sought an advisory opinion concerning the propriety of a denial of your request for records by the Lawrence Union Free School District.

Your application for records indicates that you requested:

"1. Decision of Board of Education pursuant to paragraph Fourth (a) of Agreement dated October 12, 1993 between the Lawrence Board of Education and Dr. Stewart Weinberg as to the total Merit increase for the 1994-95 School Year.

2. Total salary for Dr. Stewart Weinberg for the 1994-95 School Year."

Paragraph Fourth (a) of the agreement between the District and the Superintendent states that:

"The Board agrees to pay the Superintendent for the 1993-94 school year, as the Superintendent's salary, the sum of $120,000. For each succeeding year, the Board agrees to pay the Superintendent a minimum additional amount equal to 3.5% plus merit increases of 1% for an overall evaluation rating of 'good,' 2% for an overall evaluation rating of 'very good,' and 3% for an overall evaluation rating of 'outstanding.'"

In response to your appeal, the Superintendent upheld the original denial and wrote that "the evaluation of the Superintendent of Schools has been deemed confidential information..." You stressed, however, that you did not request the evaluation, but rather "only 'The total Merit Increase for the 1994-94 School Year' as per paragraph Fourth (a) of Agreement..."

Based on the following analysis, I believe that the information sought, in whatever record or records it may exist, must be disclosed.

I point out initially that an assertion or claim of confidentiality, unless it is based upon a statute, is 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 withhold a record.

In a related vein, there is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that deals specifically with personnel records or personnel files. The nature and content of so-called personnel files may differ from one agency to another and from one employee to another. Neither the characterization of documents as personnel records nor their placement in personnel files would necessarily render those documents confidential or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law (see Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980). On the contrary, the contents of those documents are the factors used in determining the extent to which they are available or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law.

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. While two of the grounds for denial may be relevant to an analysis of rights of access to the records in question, I do not believe that either could be cited to withhold the information sought.

Section 87(2)(g) enables 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.

Also significant is §87(2)(b), which permits an agency to withhold records when 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. It is clear based upon judicial decisions 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, with regard to records pertaining to public employees, the courts have found in a variety of contexts that 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, 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].

Although you did not request a record consisting of the evaluation of the Superintendent, the final rating could likely be considered as part of such an evaluation. Nevertheless, that portion of an evaluation or other record would in my view be available. While the contents of evaluations may differ, I believe that a typical evaluation contains three components.

One component 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. In terms of §87(2)(g), 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 the reviewer's or, in this case, the Board'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, as in this instance, 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 a 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.

While tangential to your inquiry, I point out that §87(3)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law states in relevant part that:

"Each agency shall maintain...

(b) a record setting forth the name, public office address, title and salary of every officer or employee of the agency... "

As such, a payroll record that identifies all officers or employees by name, public office address, title and salary must be prepared to comply with the Freedom of Information Law. Moreover, I believe that the payroll record and other related records identifying officers and employees and payments to them must be disclosed for the following reasons.

As indicated earlier, §87(2)(b) permits an agency to withhold record or portions of records when disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. However, payroll information has been found by the courts to be available [see e.g., Miller v. Village of Freeport, 379 NYS 2d 517, 51 AD 2d 765, (1976); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NYS 2d 954 (1978)]. As stated prior to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, payroll records:

"...represent important fiscal as well as operational information. The identity of the employees and their salaries are vital statistics kept in the proper recordation of departmental functioning and are the primary sources of protection against employment favortism. They are subject therefore to inspection" Winston v. Mangan, 338 NYS 2d 654, 664 (1972)].

In short, a record identifying agency employees by name, public office address, title and salary must in my view be maintained and made available.

It has been contended that W-2 forms, which indicate gross wages, are specifically exempted from disclosure by statute on the basis of 26 USC 6103 (the Internal Revenue Code) and §697(e) of the Tax Law. In an effort to obtain expert advice on the matter, I contacted the Disclosure Litigation Division of the Office of Chief Counsel at the Internal Revenue Service to discuss the issue. I was informed that the statutes requiring confidentiality pertain to records received and maintained by the Internal Revenue Service; those statutes do not pertain to records kept by an individual taxpayer [see e.g., Stokwitz v. Naval Investigation Service, 831 F.2d 893 (1987)], nor are they applicable to records maintained by an employer, such as a school district. In short, the attorney for the Internal Revenue Service said that the statutes in question require confidentiality only with respect to records that it receives from the taxpayer.

In conjunction with the previous commentary concerning the ability to protect against unwarranted invasions of personal privacy, I believe that portions of W-2 forms could be withheld, such as social security numbers, home addresses and net pay, for those items are largely irrelevant to the performance of one's duties. However, for reasons discussed earlier, those portions indicating public officers' or employees' names and gross wages must in my view be disclosed. Moreover, in a recent decision, the same conclusion was reached, and the court cited an advisory opinion rendered by this office (Day v. Town of Milton, Supreme Court, Saratoga County, April 27, 1992).

In short, records indicating an annual salary, an increase in pay, or gross wages of a public officer or employee must in my view be disclosed.

Lastly, the Open Meetings Law requires that minutes of meetings of public bodies be prepared and made available. Specifically, §106 of that statute provides that:

"1. Minutes shall be taken at all open meetings of a public body which shall consist of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon.

2. Minutes shall be taken at executive sessions of any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon; provided, however, that such summary need not include any matter which is not required to be made public by the freedom of information law as added by article six of this chapter.

3. Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meetings except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session."

I point out that, as a general rule, a public body may take action during a properly convened executive session [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)]. If action is taken during an executive session, minutes reflective of the action, the date and the vote must be recorded in minutes pursuant to §106(2) of the Law. If no action is taken, there is no requirement that minutes of the executive session be prepared. Nevertheless, various interpretations of the Education Law, §1708(3), indicate that, except in situations in which action during a closed session is permitted or required by statute, a school board cannot take action during an executive session [see United Teachers of Northport v. Northport Union Free School District, 50 AD 2d 897 (1975); Kursch et al. v. Board of Education, Union Free School District #1, Town of North Hempstead, Nassau County, 7 AD 2d 922 (1959); Sanna v. Lindenhurst, 107 Misc. 2d 267, modified 85 AD 2d 157, aff'd 58 NY 2d 626 (1982)]. Stated differently, based upon judicial interpretations of the Education Law, a school board generally cannot vote during an executive session, except in rare circumstances in which a statute permits or requires such a vote.

From my perspective, if the Board took action in determining the Superintendent's rating, thereby conferring a merit increase, any such action should have been taken during an open meeting and memorialized in minutes of the meeting available to the public.

I hope that I have been of some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:jm

cc: Dr. Stewart Weinberg
Board of Education
Carol Hoffman