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April 13, 1995

 

 

Mr. John G. Marmillo
Superintendent of Schools
Wappingers Central School District
Hollowbrook Park, Building 3
15 Myers Corners Road
Wappingers Falls, NY 12590-3898

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. Marmillo:

I appreciate having received a copy of your determination of an appeal rendered under the Freedom of Information Law on March 6.

The records sought involve New York State Teachers' Retirement System Retirement Reports prepared by the District to determine retirement benefits for teachers and administrators who have recently retired. The reports include employees' names, titles, member and retirement numbers, and the amounts paid for retirement incentives, unused sick leave and unused vacation time. Prior to disclosing the reports, on the advice of counsel, the employees' names, titles and member and retirement numbers were deleted. Due to the nature of the information, you wrote that you "could not be name specific".

As I understand the forms, with the exception of the member and retirement numbers, they include information which is either publicly available in other records or which is derived from public records. That being so, it is likely in my view that the names and titles and of the employees should have been disclosed.

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.

Of significance 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.

Reports transmitted between the District and the Teachers' Retirement System would constitute "inter-agency materials". However, they consist of "statistical or factual" information accessible under §87(2)(g)(i). Although somewhat tangential to the matter, I point out that, 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..."

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, as well as attendance records, must be disclosed.

Of relevance is §87(2)(b), which 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 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.

While the reports differ from the payroll record, I believe that other records reflective of payments made to public employees are available. For instance, insofar as W-2 forms of public employees indicate gross wages, they must be disclosed. 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. 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).

Similarly, the reports include information apparently derived from attendance records. In a decision dealing with attendance records indicating the dates and dates of sick leave claimed by a particular employee that was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, it was found, in essence, that disclosure would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Specifically, the Appellate Division found that:

"One of the most basic obligation of any employee is to appear for work when scheduled to do so. Concurrent with this is the rights of an employee to properly use sick leave available to him or her. In the instant case, intervenor had an obligation to report for work when scheduled along with a right to use sick leave in accordance with his collective bargaining agreement. The taxpayers have an interest in such use of sick leave for economic as well as safety reasons. Thus it can hardly be said that disclosure of the dates in February 1983 when intervenor made use of sick leave would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Further, the motives of petitioners or the means by which they will report the information is not determinative since all records of government agencies are presumptively available for inspection without regard to the status, need, good faith or purpose of the applicant requesting access..." [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 109 AD 2d 92, 94-95 (1985), aff'd 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)].

Insofar as attendance records or time sheets include reference to reasons for an absence, it has been advised that an explanation of why sick time might have been used, i.e., a description of an illness or medical problem found in records, could be withheld or deleted from a record otherwise available, for disclosure of so personal a detail of a person's life would likely constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and would not be relevant to the performance of an employee's duties. A number, however, which merely indicates the amount of sick time or vacation time accumulated or used, or the dates and times of attendance or absence, would not in my view represent a personal detail of an individual's life and would be relevant to the performance of one's official duties. Therefore, I do not believe that §87(2)(b) could be asserted to withhold that kind of information contained in an attendance record.

While the reports are not attendance records, figures indicating payments are based on or derived from attendance records coupled with salary records, both of which are public. For that reason, those figures, as well as the names and titles would, in my opinion, be available under the Freedom of Information Law.

The member and retirement numbers are unique identifiers and could in my view be withheld based on considerations of privacy. It is possible that those numbers could be used to gain unauthorized access to information pertaining to members.

If you would like to discuss the matter, please feel free to contact me. I hope that I have been of some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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