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October 26, 1995

 

 

Mr. Dione Goldin
21 Forest View
Wappinger, NY 12590-5902

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 Ms. Goldin:

I have received your letter of October 5, which reached this office on October 12. You described a series of events involving the implementation of the Open Meetings Law by the Wappingers Central School District Board of Education and asked "whether the public has the right to know under the Freedom of Information Law what lawsuits are pending against the District."

In this regard, rather than reiterating the facts and circumstances that you presented, I offer the following remarks in order to provide points of law in relation to the matter.

It is emphasized at the outset that the Open Meetings Law requires that a procedure be accomplished, during an open meeting, before a public body may enter into an executive session. Specifically, §105(1) states in relevant part that:

"Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only..."

As such, a motion to conduct an executive session must include reference to the subject or subjects to be discussed, and the motion must be carried by majority vote of a public body's total membership before such a session may validly be held. The ensuing provisions of §105(1) specify and limit the subjects that may appropriately be considered during an executive session. Therefore, a public body may not conduct an executive session to discuss the subject of its choice.

Second, the Open Meetings Law requires that notice be given to the news media and posted prior to every meeting. Section 104 of that statute provides that:

"1. Public notice of the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least one week prior thereto shall be given to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at least seventy-two hours before each meeting.

2. Public notice of the time and place of every other meeting shall be given, to the extent practicable, to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at a reasonable time prior thereto.

3. The public notice provided for by this section shall not be construed to require publication as a legal notice."

Stated differently, if a meeting is scheduled at least a week in advance, notice of the time and place must be given to the news media and to the public by means of posting in one or more designated public locations, not less than seventy-two hours prior to the meeting. If a meeting is scheduled less than a week an advance, again, notice of the time and place must be given to the news media and posted in the same manner as described above, "to the extent practicable", at a reasonable time prior to the meeting. Although the Open Meetings Law does not make specific reference to special or emergency meetings, if, for example, there is a need to convene quickly, the notice requirements can generally be met by telephoning the local news media and by posting notice in one or more designated locations.

It is reiterated that notice must be "conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations." Consequently, I believe that a public body must designate, presumably by resolution, the location or locations where it will routinely post notice of meetings. To meet the requirement that notice be "conspicuously posted", notice must in my view be placed at a location that is visible to the public. Moreover, the judicial interpretation of the Open Meetings Law suggests that the propriety of scheduling a meeting less than a week in advance is dependent upon the actual need to do so. As stated in Previdi v. Hirsch:

"Whether abbreviated notice is 'practicable' or 'reasonable' in a given case depends on the necessity for same. Here, respondents virtually concede a lack of urgency: They deny petitioner's characterization of the session as an 'emergency' and maintain nothing of substance was transacted at the meeting except to discuss the status of litigation and to authorize, pro forma, their insurance carrier's involvement in negotiations. It is manifest then that the executive session could easily have been scheduled for another date with only minimum delay. In that event respondents could even have provided the more extensive notice required by POL §104(1). Only respondent's choice in scheduling prevented this result.

"Moreover, given the short notice provided by respondents, it should have been apparent that the posting of a single notice in the School District offices would hardly serve to apprise the public that an executive session was being called...

"In White v. Battaglia, 79 A.D. 2d 880, 881, 434 N.Y.S.ed 637, lv. to app. den. 53 N.Y.2d 603, 439 N.Y.S.2d 1027, 421 N.E.2d 854, the Court condemned an almost identical method of notice as one at bar:

"Fay Powell, then president of the board, began contacting board members at 4:00 p.m. on June 27 to ask them to attend a meeting at 7:30 that evening at the central office, which was not the usual meeting date or place. The only notice given to the public was one typewritten announcement posted on the central office bulletin board...Special Term could find on this record that appellants violated the...Public Officers Law...in that notice was not given 'to the extent practicable, to the news media' nor was it 'conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations' at a reasonable time 'prior thereto' (emphasis added)" [524 NYS 2d 643, 645 (1988)].

Based upon the foregoing, merely posting a single notice would fail to comply with the Open Meetings Law, for the Law requires that notice be given to the news media and posted "conspicuously" in one or more "designated public locations" prior to meetings. Further, absent an emergency or urgency, the Court in Previdi suggested that it would be unreasonable to conduct meetings on short notice, unless there is some necessity to do so.

Third, perhaps the most frequently cited ground for entry into executive session is the so-called "personnel" exception. Although it is used often, the word "personnel" appears nowhere in the Open Meetings Law. While one of the grounds for entry into executive session relates to personnel matters, the language of that provision is precise. In its original form, §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law permitted a public body to enter into an executive session to discuss:

"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of any person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of any person or corporation..."

Under the language quoted above, public bodies often convened executive sessions to discuss matters that dealt with "personnel" generally, tangentially, or in relation to policy concerns. However, the Committee consistently advised that the provision was intended largely to protect privacy and not to shield matters of policy under the guise of privacy.

To attempt to clarify the Law, the Committee recommended a series of amendments to the Open Meetings Law, several of which became effective on October 1, 1979. The recommendation made by the Committee regarding §105(1)(f) was enacted and now states that a public body may enter into an executive session to discuss:

"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation..." (emphasis added).

Based on the insertion of the term "particular" in §105(1)(f), I believe that a discussion under that provision may be considered in an executive session only when the subject involves a particular person or persons, and only when one or more of the topics listed in §105(1)(f) are considered.

If, for example, a discussion involves the creation of a position or, as you wrote, "the possibility of hiring an additional dean", I do not believe that there would be any basis for entry into executive session. That kind of issue would not focus on any "particular person", but rather on the District's needs and perhaps the manner in which public monies may be allocated. When the need to hire an additional dean is determined and the Board considers the relative merits of the applicants for that position, I believe that an executive could properly be held, for the discussion would then involve the discussion of one's employment history and a matter leading to the employment of a particular person.

Reference was also made to the discussion of a grievance in an executive session. Whether the executive session was properly held would in my view have been dependent on the nature of the grievance. If the grievance involved a particular employee in relation to one or more of subjects described in §105(1)(f), an executive could properly have been held. On the other hand, if, for instance, the grievance pertained to a matter of policy, the physical condition of a school or classroom, or the inadequacy of parking spaces for teachers, I do not believe that there would have been a basis for conducting an executive session.

In a related vein, due to the presence of the term "particular" in §105(1)(f), it has been advised that a motion describing the subject to be discussed as "personnel" or as a "specific personnel matter" is inadequate, and that the motion should be based upon the specific language of §105(1)(f). For instance, a proper motion might be: "I move to enter into an executive session to discuss the employment history of a particular person (or persons)". Such a motion would not in my opinion have to identify the person or persons who may be the subject of a discussion. By means of the kind of motion suggested above, members of a public body and others in attendance would have the ability to know that there is a proper basis for entry into an executive session. Absent such detail, neither the members nor others may be able to determine whether the subject may properly be considered behind closed doors.

It is noted that the Appellate Division, Second Department, recently confirmed the advice rendered by this office. In discussing §105(1)(f) in relation to a matter involving employment, the Court stated that:

"...the public body must identify the subject matter to be discussed (See, Public Officers Law § 105 [1]), and it is apparent that this must be accomplished with some degree of particularity, i.e., merely reciting the statutory language is insufficient (see, Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, 111 Misc 2d 303, 304-305). Additionally, the topics discussed during the executive session must remain within the exceptions enumerated in the statute (see generally, Matter of Plattsburgh Publ. Co., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v City of Plattsburgh, 185 AD2d §18), and these exceptions, in turn, 'must be narrowly scrutinized, lest the article's clear mandate be thwarted by thinly veiled references to the areas delineated thereunder' (Weatherwax v Town of Stony Point, 97 AD2d 840, 841, quoting Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, supra, at 304; see, Matter of Orange County Publs., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v County of Orange, 120 AD2d 596, lv dismissed 68 NY 2d 807).

"Applying these principles to the matter before us, it is apparent that the Board's stated purpose for entering into executive session, to wit, the discussion of a 'personnel issue', does not satisfy the requirements of Public Officers Law § 105 (1) (f). The statute itself requires, with respect to personnel matters, that the discussion involve the 'employment history of a particular person" (id. [emphasis supplied]). Although this does not mandate that the individual in question be identified by name, it does require that any motion to enter into executive session describe with some detail the nature of the proposed discussion (see, State Comm on Open Govt Adv Opn dated Apr. 6, 1993), and we reject respondents' assertion that the Board's reference to a 'personnel issue' is the functional equivalent of identifying 'a particular person'" [Gordon v. Village of Monticello, 207 AD 2d 55 (1994)].

Another executive session to which you referred pertained to litigation that you initiated against the District. It is unclear whether you were present during the executive session. If you were, the executive was likely held improperly. The provision that deals with litigation is §105(1)(d), which permits a public body to enter into an executive session to discuss "proposed, pending or current litigation". In construing the language quoted above, it has been held by the Appellate Division, Second, Department, that:

"The purpose of paragraph d is "to enable is to enable a public body to discuss pending litigation privately, without baring its strategy to its adversary through mandatory public meetings' (Matter of Concerned Citizens to Review Jefferson Val. Mall v. Town Bd. Of Town of Yorktown, 83 AD 2d 612, 613, 441 NYS 2d 292). The belief of the town's attorney that a decision adverse to petitioner 'would almost certainly lead to litigation' does not justify the conducting of this public business in an executive session. To accept this argument would be to accept the view that any public body could bar the public from its meetings simply be expressing the fear that litigation may result from actions taken therein. Such a view would be contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the exception" [Weatherwax v. Town of Stony Point, 97 AD 2d 840, 841 (1983)].

Based upon the foregoing, I believe that the exception is intended to permit a public body to discuss its litigation strategy behind closed doors, rather than issues that might eventually result in litigation so as to prevent disclosure of its strategy to its adversary. I note that the Concerned Citizens case cited above dealt with a situation in which a public body met with its adversary in litigation to discuss a settlement. The court held that the public body lost its ability to conduct an executive session by inviting its adversary to attend. On the other hand, if you were not present at the executive session, it appears that the session was appropriately held.

With regard to the sufficiency of a motion to discuss litigation, it has been held that:

"It is insufficient to merely regurgitate the statutory language; to wit, 'discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation'. This boilerplate recitation does not comply with the intent of the statute. To validly convene an executive session for discussion of proposed, pending or current litigation, the public body must identify with particularity the pending, proposed or current litigation to be discussed during the executive session" [Daily Gazette Co. , Inc. v. Town Board, Town of Cobleskill, 44 NYS 2d 44, 46 (1981), emphasis added by court].

You made reference to private meetings between that apparently were held by the Board with its attorney. In this regard, the Open Meetings Law envisions two vehicles under which the public may be excluded from a meeting of a public body. One involves entry into an executive session. Again, the phrase "executive session" is defined in §102(3) of the Open Meetings Law to mean a portion of an open meeting during which the public may be excluded. The other vehicle involves exemptions from the Open Meetings Law, which are delineated in §108. If a matter is exempt from the Open Meetings Law, the provisions of that statute do not apply. When an exemption applies, a public body may meet in private, and there is no requirement that the procedural steps necessary to conduct an executive session be followed.

When a public body seeks the legal advice of its attorney, relevant to an analysis of the matter is §108(3), which exempts from the Open Meetings Law:

"...any matter made confidential by federal or state law."

When an attorney-client relationship has been invoked, the communications made pursuant to that relationship are considered confidential under §4503 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Consequently, if an attorney and client establish a privileged relationship, the communications made pursuant to that relationship would in my view be confidential under state law and, therefore, exempt from the Open Meetings Law.

It has long been held that a municipal board may establish a privileged relationship with its attorney [People ex rel. Updyke v. Gilon, 9 NYS 243 (1989); Pennock v. Lane, 231 NYS 2d 897, 898 (1962)]. However, such a relationship is in my opinion operable only when a municipal board or official seeks the legal advice of an attorney acting in his or her capacity as an attorney, and where there is no waiver of the privilege by the client.

In a judicial determination that described the parameters of the attorney-client relationship and the conditions precedent to its initiation, it was held that:

"In general, 'the privilege applies only if (1) the asserted holder of the privilege is or sought to become a client; (2) the person to whom the communication was made (a) is a member of the bar of a court, or his subordinate and (b) in connection with this communication relates to a fact of which the attorney was informed (a) by his client (b) without the presence of strangers (c) for the purpose of securing primarily either (i) an opinion on law or (ii) legal services (iii) assistance in some legal proceedings, and not (d) for the purpose of committing a crime or tort; and (4) the privilege has been (a) claimed and (b) not waived by the client'" [People v. Belge, 59 AD 2d 307, 399, NYS 2d 539, 540 (1977)].

Based on the foregoing, insofar as the Board seeks the legal advice of its attorneys and the attorneys are rendering legal advice, those communications would in my view be exempt from the coverage of the Open Meetings Law.

With respect to minutes of executive sessions, as a general rule, a public body may take action during an executive session properly held [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)]. If action is taken during an executive session, minutes reflective of the action, the date and the vote must be recorded in minutes pursuant to §106(2) of the Law. If no action is taken, there is no requirement that minutes of the executive session be prepared. Nevertheless, various interpretations of the Education Law, §1708(3), indicate that, except in situations in which action during a closed session is permitted or required by statute, a school board cannot take action during an executive session [see United Teachers of Northport v. Northport Union Free School District, 50 AD 2d 897 (1975); Kursch et al. v. Board of Education, Union Free School District #1, Town of North Hempstead, Nassau County, 7 AD 2d 922 (1959); Sanna v. Lindenhurst, 107 Misc. 2d 267, modified 85 AD 2d 157, aff'd 58 NY 2d 626 (1982)]. Stated differently, based upon judicial interpretations of the Education Law, a school board generally cannot vote during an executive session, except in rare circumstances in which a statute permits or requires such a vote. Lastly, I believe that the public has the ability to know of litigation in which an agency is a party. In brief, 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.

In a manner analogous to the Open Meetings Law, it is possible that some records pertaining to litigation fall within the scope of the attorney-client privilege. Here I point out that the first basis for denial in the Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(a), pertains to records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." As noted earlier, the courts have found that legal advice given by a municipal attorney to his or her clients, municipal officials, is privileged when it is prepared in conjunction with an attorney-client relationship [see e.d., People ex rel. Updyke v. Gilon, and Pennock v. Lane, supra Bernkrant v. City Rent and Rehabilitation Administration, 242 NYS 2d 752 (1963), aff'd 17 App. Div. 2d 392]. As such, I believe that a municipal attorney may engage in a privileged relationship with his or her client and that records prepared in conjunction with an attorney-client relationship are considered privileged under §4503 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Further, since the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, it has also found that records may be withheld when the privilege can appropriately be asserted when the attorney-client privilege is read in conjunction with §87(2)(a) of the Law [see e.g., Mid-Boro Medical Group v. New York City Department of Finance, Sup. Ct., Bronx Cty., NYLJ, December 7, 1979; Steele v. NYS Department of Health, 464 NY 2d 925 (1983)]. Similarly, material prepared for litigation may be confidential under §3101 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules.

Nevertheless, legal papers filed against the District would not have been prepared by the District, its officials or its agents. As such, in my opinion, those papers would not be subject to the attorney-client privilege. For similar reasons, the answers prepared by the District in response to a petition or legal papers, once served upon a plaintiff or legal adversary, would be outside the scope of the attorney-client privilege. In general, when those papers are made available to the District's adversary, I believe that they become a matter of public record. Moreover, although the Freedom of Information Law does not apply to the courts and court records, such records are generally available under other provisions of law [see e.g., Judiciary Law, §255]. From my perspective, if the records sought are publicly available from a court or another agency (i.e., the State Education Department), they would also be available under the Freedom of Information Law from the District.

The one kind of situation in which a school district could withhold portions of litigation papers otherwise available would pertain to records identifiable to students. Under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 USC §1232g), and educational agency generally cannot disclose records insofar as they identify students. As such, portions of the records in question might justifiably be deleted to protect the privacy of students and to comply with federal law. It is likely, however, that the same records would be available in their entirety in most instances from the court in which the proceeding is being litigated.

In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Laws, a copy of this opinion will be forwarded to the Board of Education.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:pb

cc: Board of Education