March 31, 1995
Mr. James F. Seelandt
Auburn Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 618
Auburn, NY 13024
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. Seelandt:
I have received your letter of February 27 in which you sought assistance and information. You questioned whether a failure by the records access officer at your facility to respond to your request constituted a constructive denial of your request.
In this regard, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied..."
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states in relevant part 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, 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."
In addition, 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)].
For your information, the person designated to determine appeals at the Department of Correctional Services is Counsel to the Department.
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. I point out that the Department's regulations specify that "personal history data" concerning an inmate is available to the inmate.
Of relevance to records relating to transfers is §87(2)(g), which 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.
I point out that a decision rendered in 1989 might have dealt with the kinds of records concerning transfers in which you are interested. In that case, it was stated that:
"The petitioner seeks disclosure of unredacted portions of five Program Security and Assessment Summary forms, prepared semi-annually or upon the transfer of an inmate from one facility to another, which contain information to assist the respondents in determining the placement of the inmate in the most appropriate facility. The respondents claim that these documents are exempted from disclosure under the intra-agency memorandum exemption contained in the Freedom of Information Law (Public Officers Law, section 87[g]). We have examined in camera unredacted copies of the documents at issue (see Matter of Nalo v. Sullivan, 125 AD 2d 311, 509 NYS 2d 53; see also Matter of Allen Group, Inc. v. New York State Dept. of Motor Vehicles, App. Div., 538 NYS 2d 78), and find that they are exempted as intra-agency material, inasmuch as they contain predecisional evaluations, recommendations and conclusions concerning the petitioner's conduct in prison (see Matter of Kheel v. Ravitch, 62 NY 2d 1, 475 NYS 2d 814, 464 NE 2d 118; Matter of Town of Oyster Bay v. Williams, 134 AD 2d 267, 520 NYS 2d 599)" [Rowland D. v. Scully, 543 NYS 2d 497, 498; 152 AD 2d 570 (1989)].
Insofar as the records sought are equivalent to those described in Rowland D., it appears that they could be withheld.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Records Access Officer