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February 13, 1995

 

Mr. Philip H. Schnabel
The Legal Aid Society of Orange County, Inc.
P.O. Box 328
Goshen, NY 10924

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. Schnabel:

I have received your letter of January 11 and the correspondence attached to it.

According to the materials, on December 5 you requested an arrest report pertaining to a named individual as well as statements given to the Port Jervis Police Department by any witnesses to the incident. The request was denied on the ground that disclosure "would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings." You appealed the denial on December 15 and contended that disclosure would not interfere with any law enforcement investigation because the investigation had been completed and that disclosure would not "interfere with any pending judicial proceeding since the requested materials have not been sealed by the Court." As of the date of your letter to this office, you received no further response. You have asked whether the failure to respond within the statutory time period would require that the requested records must be furnished by the City of Port Jervis to the Legal Aid Society.

In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, as you are likely aware, §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law pertains to the right to appeal a denial of access to records and states that:

"any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive or governing body of the entity, or the person thereof designated by such head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."

It has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d 774 (1982)].

I point out that the lower court in Floyd determined that the records should have been disclosed by virtue of the agency's failure to respond, but that the Appellate Division modified that aspect of the decision. While the Appellate Division confirmed that a failure to respond to an appeal within the statutory time constitutes a constructive denial of access, thereby resulting in the exhaustion of one's administrative remedies and the right to initiate an Article 78 proceeding, it was also found that such failure did not automatically require that the agency disclose the requested records. Specifically, in rejecting the Supreme Court's automatic grant of access, the Appellate Division found that:

"We think this is too rigid an interpretation of the statute. As a textual matter, if the effect of failure to comply were as Special Term interpreted it, it would have been more appropriate for the statute to say that if (A) the agency did not furnish the explanation in writing then (B) the agency must provide access to the material sought. Instead, however, the statute is phrased in the alternative form of requiring the agency within seven days to do either (A) or (B). As a textual matter there would appear to be no particular reason to say that failure to do either (A) or (B) would require the agency to do (B) rather than (A), which is the choice Special Term made.

"More important, as a policy matter, we do not think the statute should be interpreted so rigidly to require the result directed by Special Term. We recognize the importance of prompt response by the agency to the request for information. Such responsiveness and accountability are the very point of FOIL. But the same statute also expresses the public policy that some kinds of material should be exempt from disclosure. Both policies must be considered. To say that even the slightest default in timely explanation destroys the exemption seems to us too draconian. We think the seven-day limitation should be read as directory rather than mandatory, and that the consequence of failure by the agency to comply with the seven-day limitation is that the applicant will be deemed to have exhausted his administrative remedies and will be entitled to seek his judicial remedy" (id., 87 AD 2d 388, 390).

I note that at the time of the decision, the statutory time for responding to an appeal was seven days; it is now ten business days.

Second, with respect to rights of access, 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.

From my perspective, two of the grounds for denial may be relevant under the circumstances. Section 87(2)(b) permits an agency to withhold records insofar as disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." It is possible that the identities of witnesses might properly be deleted under §87(2)(g) to protect the privacy of those persons. The other provision of relevance, §87(2)(e), permits an agency to withhold records that:

"are compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would:

i. interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings;

ii. deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication;

iii. identify a confidential source or disclose confidential information relating to a criminal investigation; or

iv. reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures, except routine techniques and procedures."

In your assertions are accurate, that disclosure would neither interfere with an investigation because it has ended nor with a judicial proceeding, the basis for denial offered by the City Clerk would appear to have been inappropriate.

Lastly, it is emphasized that the courts have consistently interpreted the Freedom of Information Law in a manner that fosters maximum access. As stated by the Court of Appeals more than decade ago:

"To be sure, the balance is presumptively struck in favor of disclosure, but in eight specific, narrowly constructed instances where the governmental agency convincingly demonstrates its need, disclosure will not be ordered (Public Officers Law, section 87, subd 2). Thus, the agency does not have carte blanche to withhold any information it pleases. Rather, it is required to articulate particularized and specific justification and, if necessary, submit the requested materials to the courts for in camera inspection, to exempt its records from disclosure (see Church of Scientology of N.Y. v. State of New York, 46 NY 2d 906, 908). Only where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld" [Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571 (1979)]."

In another decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, it was held that:

"Exemptions are to be narrowly construed to provide maximum access, and the agency seeking to prevent disclosure carries the burden of demonstrating that the requested material falls squarely within a FOIL exemption by articulating a particularized and specific justification for denying access" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 566 (1986); see also, Farbman & Sons v. New York City, 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984); and Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571 (1979)].

In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to City officials.

I hope that I have been of some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:jm
cc: James J. Hinkley, City Clerk
Common Council