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June 13, 1995

 

 

Mr. Joseph G. Pelych
City Attorney
City of Hornell
211 Main Street
Hornell, NY 14843

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. Pelych:

I have received your letter of May 16 and various related materials.

You have sought an advisory opinion concerning requests made to the City of Hornell for telephone bills involving the City's public safety functions. You indicated that "public safety" in the City of Hornell "consists of three separate parts", ambulance, the Fire Department and the Police Department.

In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, 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. It is emphasized that the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the capacity to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the grounds for denial that follow. In my opinion, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence indicates that a single record may be both accessible or deniable in whole or in part. I believe that the quoted phrase also imposes an obligation on agency officials to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, may justifiably be withheld.

Second, in my view, three of the grounds for denial may be relevant to the issue.

Section 87(2)(g) states that an agency may 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.

If phone records are generated by the City, I believe that the records could be characterized as intra-agency materials. Nevertheless, in view of their content, they would apparently consist of statistical or factual information accessible under §87(2)(g)(i) unless another basis for denial applies. As such, §87(2)(g) would not, in my opinion, serve as a basis for denial. If the records were prepared by a phone company and sent to the City, they would not fall within §87(2)(g), because the phone company would not be an agency.

A second ground for denial of relevance is §87(2)(b), which permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that 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 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. With regard to records pertaining to public employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, 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].

When a public officer or employee uses a telephone in the course of his or her official duties, bills involving the use of the telephone would, in my opinion, be relevant to the performance of that person's official duties. On that basis, I do not believe that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy with respect to an officer or employee of the City.

Since phone bills often list the numbers called, the time and length of calls and the charges, it has been contended by some that disclosure of numbers called might result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, not with respect to a public employee who initiated the call, but rather with respect to the recipient of the call.

There is but one decision of which I am aware that deals with the issue. In Wilson v. Town of Islip, one of the categories of the records sought involved bills involving the use of cellular telephones. In that decision, it was found that:

"The petitioner requested that the respondents provide copies of the Town of Islip's cellular telephone bills for 1987, 1988 and 1989. The court correctly determined that the respondents complied with this request by producing the summary pages of the bills showing costs incurred on each of the cellular phones for the subject period. The petitioner never specifically requested any further or more detailed information with respect to the telephone bills. In view of the information disclosed in the summary pages, which indicated that the amounts were not excessive, it was fair and reasonable for the respondents to conclude that they were fully complying with the petitioner's request" [578 NYS 2d 642, 643, 179 AD 2d 763 (1992)].

The foregoing represents the entirety of the Court's decision regarding the matter; there is no additional analysis of the issue. I believe, however, that a more detailed analysis is required to deal adequately with the matter.

When phone numbers appear on a bill, those numbers do not necessarily indicate who in fact was called or who picked up the receiver in response to a call, and in many cases an indication of the phone number would disclose nothing regarding the nature of a conversation. Further, even though the numbers may be disclosed, nothing in the Freedom of Information Law would require an individual to indicate the nature of a conversation. In short, I believe that the holding in Wilson is conclusory in nature and lacks a substantial analysis of the issue.

This is not to suggest, however, that the numbers appearing on a phone bill must be disclosed in every instance. Exceptions to the general rule of disclosure might arise if, for example, a telephone is used to contact recipients of public assistance or persons seeking certain health services. It has been advised in the past that if a government employee contacts those classes of persons as part of the employee's ongoing and routine duties, there may be grounds for withholding phone numbers listed on a bill. For instance, disclosure of numbers called by a caseworker who phones applicants for or recipients of public assistance might identify those who were contacted. In my view, the numbers could likely be deleted in that circumstance to protect against an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy due to the status of those contacted, i.e., as recipients of public assistance or persons having particular health problems or issues.

Similarly, in the case of phone bills reflective of calls made by law enforcement officials, depending upon an official's function and how an official uses a phone, there may be grounds for withholding the numbers on a bill. If a phone is frequently or routinely used in connection with criminal investigations, disclosure of numbers called could permit an applicant for the bills to ascertain the course of an investigation, identify witnesses or even confidential informants. When that is so, I believe that appropriate deletions (i.e., the numbers called) could be made on the ground that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and/or endanger the lives or safety of law enforcement personnel and perhaps others who might be identified by means of a phone number appearing on a bill. In that latter situation involving the possibility of endangerment, §87(2)(f) of the Freedom of Information Law would serve as a basis for denial.

It is emphasized that the Freedom of Information Law treats applicants for records equally, for the courts have determined that records accessible under that statute must be made equally available to any person, irrespective of one's status or interest [see Burke v. Yudelson, 51 AD 2d 673 (1976); Farbman v. New York City Health and Hosps. Corp., 62 NY 2d 75 (1984)]. Therefore, if it is determined that the bills, in their entirety, are accessible under the law, they would be accessible to the applicants for the records and anyone else. While the interest of the applicants who have requested the records may focus on accountability, the motivation of others may be different. A lawbreaker or potential lawbreaker in possession of phone bills that include reference to every number called may be able to learn that he or she is the subject of an investigation and consequently may take steps to evade detection or effective law enforcement, thereby jeopardizing the safety of law enforcement personnel and others. While an informant's number may not be known to the applicants, it may be recognized by the subject of an investigation. Disclosure in that case could endanger the life or safety of the informant or witness, for example.

In short, if a phone is used by law enforcement personnel to engage in criminal investigations, there would likely be valid reasons for withholding the numbers on the bill involving the use of that phone. On the other hand, if a phone is not used to engage in that kind of function, it may be difficult to justify withholding any aspect of a bill for the use of that phone.

I hope that I have been of some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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