March 17, 1995
Mr. Edmund Yarnowski
33 Market Street
Dunkirk, NY 14048
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. Yarnowski:
I have received your letter in which you sought assistance concerning a denial of your request for information by the Dunkirk School District. In brief, following your request for teacher salaries and fringe benefits, you were informed, in your words, that there are "no such records at this time."
In this regard, by way of background, 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.
With certain exceptions, the Freedom of Information Law is does not require an agency to create records. Section 89(3) of the Law states in relevant part that:
"Nothing in this article [the Freedom of Information Law] shall be construed to require any entity to prepare any record not in possession or maintained by such entity except the records specified in subdivision three of section eighty-seven..."
Therefore, if information that is requested does not exist in the form of a record or records, an agency would not be required to prepare a record on behalf of an applicant. However, a payroll list of employees is included among the records required to be kept pursuant to "subdivision three of section eighty-seven" of the Law. Specifically, that provision 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 employees and their salaries must be disclosed for the following reasons.
One of the grounds for denial, §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)]. In Gannett, supra, the Court of Appeals held that the identities of former employees laid off due to budget cuts, as well as current employees, should be made available. In addition, this Committee has advised and the courts have upheld the notion that records that are relevant to the performance of the official duties of public employees are generally available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible as opposed to an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [Gannett, supra; Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 109 AD 2d 292, aff'd 67 NY 2d 562 (1986) ; Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, October 30, 1980; Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975) ; and Montes v. State, 406 NYS 664 (Court of Claims 1978)]. As stated prior to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, payroll records:
"...represent important fiscal as well as operation 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. Often fringe benefits are referenced in collective bargaining agreements. Those records and others indicating an agency's costs per employee, or by the category of the benefit conferred, would in my opinion be available, for none of the grounds for denial could in my view be asserted to withhold such records. With specific regard to health benefits, I believe that a disclosure indicating that a public officer or employee is covered by a health insurance plan at public expense would not represent or reveal an intimate detail of one's life that could be withheld as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(b)]. However, if a disclosure of the cost of coverage for a particular employee indicates which plan that person has chosen or whether his or her plan involves individual or dependent coverage, such a disclosure in my view may potentially result in the revelation of a number of details of a person's life and an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. For instance, an indication of cost relative to a particular employee might reveal whether the coverage involves medical treatment routinely provided by a clinic, as opposed to a primary care physician; it also may indicate the nature of coverage, i.e., whether coverage is basic or includes catastrophic care. The cost may also reveal whether coverage is for an employee alone or for that person's family or dependents. More appropriate in my opinion would be a disclosure of costs by category, rather than by naming individuals, in terms of plans that are offered or available to officers or employees.
Lastly, in terms of public policy, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, has held that:
"The Freedom of Information Law expresses this State's strong commitment to open government and public accountability and imposes a broad standard of disclosure upon the State and its agencies (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v New York City Health and Hosps. Corp., 62 NY 2d 75, 79). The statute, enacted in furtherance of the public's vested and inherent 'right to know', affords all citizens the means to obtain information concerning the day-to-day functioning of State and local government thus providing the electorate with sufficient information 'to make intelligent, informed choices with respect to both the direction and scope of governmental activities' and with an effective tool for exposing waste, negligence and abuse on the part of government officers" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 565-566 (1986)].
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to the District.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Education
Ms. Wolfender, Superintendent