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October 30, 1995

 

 

Mr. Kevin Conlon
The Daily Gazette
50 N. Main Street
Mechanicville, NY 12119

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. Conlon:

I have received your letter of October 12 in which you sought an advisory opinion concerning a denial of access to records.

According to your letter and the correspondence attached to it, you requested from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) copies "of all reports or communications between the DEC and the General Electric Silicones Division concerning the consent order signed on Sept. 1 and issues that prompted the agreement..." In response, DEC denied access to records communicated between its attorneys and attorneys for General Electric [GE], stating that the records "constitute privileged attorney work-product prepared for negotiation/settlement purposes and as such are exempt from disclosure pursuant to Public Officers Law §87.2(a) and Civil Practice Law and Rules §3101" (CPLR).

From my perspective, although §3101(c) and (d) of the CPLR authorize confidentiality regarding, respectively, the work product of an attorney and material prepared for litigation, those kinds of records remain confidential in my opinion only so long as they are not disclosed to an adversary or a filed with a court, for example. I do not believe that materials that are served upon or shared with an adversary could be characterized as confidential or exempt from disclosure.

By way of background, 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. The first ground for denial, §87(2)(a), pertains to records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." While I believe that §3101(c) and (d) might be properly be asserted to withhold records in certain circumstances, those provisions could not, in my view, be appropriately cited in this instance.

Section 3101 pertains disclosure in a context related to litigation, and subdivision (a) reflects the general principle that "[t]here shall be full disclosure of all matter material and necessary in the prosecution or defense of an action..." The Advisory Committee Notes pertaining to §3101 state that the intent is "to facilitate disclosure before trial of the facts bearing on a case while limiting the possibilities of abuse." The prevention of "abuse" is considered in the remaining provisions of §3101, which describe narrow limitations on disclosure. One of those limitations, §3101(c), states that "[t]he work product of an attorney shall not be obtainable." The other provision at issue pertains to material prepared for litigation, and §3101(d)(2) states in relevant part that:

"materials otherwise discoverable under subdivision (a) of this section and prepared in anticipation of litigation or for trial by or for another party, or by or for the other party's representative (including an attorney, consultant, surety, indemnitor, insurer or agent), may be obtained only upon a showing that the party seeking discovery has substantial need of the materials in the preparation of the case and is unable without undue hardship to obtain the substantial equivalent of the materials by other means. In ordering discovery of the materials when the required showing has been made, the court shall protect against disclosure of the mental impressions, conclusions, opinions or legal theories of an attorney or other representative of a party concerning the litigation."

Both of the provisions upon which DEC relied are intended to shield from an adversary records that would result in a strategic advantage or disadvantage, as the case may be. Reliance on both in the context of a request made under the Freedom of Information Law is in my view dependent upon a finding that the records have not been disclosed, particularly to an adversary. In a decision in which it was determined that records could justifiably be withheld as attorney work product, the "disputed documents" were "clearly work product documents which contain the opinions, reflections and thought process of partners and associates" of a law firm "which have not been communicated or shown to individuals outside of that law firm" [Estate of Johnson, 538 NYS 2d 173 (1989)]. In another decision, the relationship between the attorney-privilege and the ability to withhold the work product of an attorney was discussed, and it was found that:

"The attorney-client privilege requires some showing that the subject information was disclosed in a confidential communication to an attorney for the purpose of obtaining legal advice (Matter of Priest v. Hennessy, 51 N.Y.2d 62, 68-69, 431 N.Y.S.2d 511, 409 N.E.2d 983). The work-product privilege requires an attorney affidavit showing that the information was generated by an attorney for the purpose of litigation (see, Warren v. New York City Tr. Auth., 34 A.D.2d 749, 310 N.Y.S.2d 277). The burden of satisfying each element of the privilege falls on the party asserting it (Priest v. Hennessy, supra, 51 N.Y.2d at 69, 431 N.Y.S. 2d 511, 409 N.E.2d 983), and conclusory assertions will not suffice (Witt v. Triangle Steel Prods. Corp., 103 A.D.2d 742, 477 N.Y.S.2d 210)" [Coastal Oil New York, Inc. v. Peck, [184 AD 2d 241 (1992)].

In a discussion of the parameters of the attorney-client relationship and the conditions precedent to its initiation, it has been 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 proceeding, 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)].

The thrust of case law concerning material prepared for litigation is consistent with the preceding analysis, in that §3101(d) may properly be asserted as a means of shielding such material from an adversary.

When the records in question were communicated between DEC and GE, any claim of privilege or its equivalent was in my view effectively waived. Once records in the nature of attorney work product or material prepared for litigation are transmitted to an adversary, i.e., from DEC to GE and vice versa, I believe that the capacity to claim exemptions from disclosure under §3101(c) or (d) of the CPLR or, therefore, §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, ends.

In short, because the records were transmitted between DEC and GE, there would appear to be no basis under the Freedom of Information Law for a denial of access.

A copy of this opinion will be forwarded to the person designated to determine appeals at the DEC, Frank V. Bifera, Acting General Counsel.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:jm

cc: Frank V. Bifera
Elissa Armater