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November 8, 1995

 

 

Mr. Gerald S. Jacobs
Town Attorney
Town of Eastchester
40 Mill Road
Eastchester, NY 10709

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. Jacobs:

I have received your letter of October 26 and the materials attached to it. You wrote that the correspondence was sent at the request of Rita M. Blanco, who referred to me in a letter to you of October 23 as "FOIL Appeals officer under Section 894A." Ms. Blanco had requested records from the Town of Eastchester pertaining to certain certiorari proceedings initiated against the Town, and her request was denied by the Town Clerk on the ground that the records relate to pending litigation. You affirmed, stating that attorney work product or documents "used in the preparation of litigation" are not discoverable, and that "any appraisal [the Town] obtained has been prepared for the purposes of litigation."

I agree in great measure with your remarks. While it is not my intent to be overly technical, I offer the following comments for purposes of clarification.

First, as stated by the Court of Appeals in a case involving a request made under the Freedom of Information Law by a person involved in litigation against an agency: "Access to records of a government agency under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) (Public Officers Law, Article 6) is not affected by the fact that there is pending or potential litigation between the person making the request and the agency" [Farbman v. NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, 62 NY 2d 75, 78 (1984)]. Similarly, in an earlier decision, the Court of Appeals determined that "the standing of one who seeks access to records under the Freedom of Information Law is as a member of the public, and is neither enhanced...nor restricted...because he is also a litigant or potential litigant" [Matter of John P. v. Whalen, 54 NY 2d 89, 99 (1980)]. The Court in Farbman, supra, discussed the distinction between the use of the Freedom of Information Law as opposed to the use of discovery in Article 31 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR). Specifically, it was found that:

"FOIL does not require that the party requesting records make any showing of need, good faith or legitimate purpose; while its purpose may be to shed light on governmental decision-making, its ambit is not confined to records actually used in the decision-making process (Matter of Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581.) Full disclosure by public agencies is, under FOIL, a public right and in the public interest, irrespective of the status or need of the person making the request.

"CPLR article 31 proceeds under a different premise, and serves quite different concerns. While speaking also of 'full disclosure' article 31 is plainly more restrictive than FOIL. Access to records under CPLR depends on status and need. With goals of promoting both the ascertainment of truth at trial and the prompt disposition of actions (Allen v. Crowell-Collier Pub. Co., 21 NY 2d 403, 407), discovery is at the outset limited to that which is 'material and necessary in the prosecution or defense of an action'" [see Farbman, supra, at 80].

Based upon the foregoing, the pendency of litigation would not, in my opinion, affect either the rights of the public or a litigant under the Freedom of Information Law.

Second, as 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." 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.

As you are aware, §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 those provisions 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.

In my view, insofar as the records in question have been communicated between the Town and its adversary or have been filed with a court, any claim of privilege or its equivalent would be effectively waived. Once records in the nature of attorney work product or material prepared for litigation are transmitted to an adversary, i.e., from the Town to its adversary 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.

It is also noted that it has been determined judicially that if records are prepared for multiple purposes, one of which includes eventual use in litigation, §3101(d) does not serve as a basis for withholding records; only when records are prepared solely for litigation can §3101(d) be properly asserted to deny access to records [see e.g., Westchester-Rockland Newspapers v. Mosczydlowski, 58 AD 2d 234 (1977)].

Lastly, again, for purposes of clarification, it appears that Ms. Blanco believes that this office may have the authority to determine an appeal. In this regard, the Committee on Open Government is authorized to advise with respect to the Freedom of Information Law, and the preceding commentary should be considered as advisory only. While it is my hope that advisory opinions are educational and persuasive, agencies have the responsibility to determine appeals pursuant to §89(4)(a). 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 of the entity, or the person thereof designated by such 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."

When a denial of access is affirmed following an appeal, notwithstanding the preparation of an advisory opinion, the person denied access may seek judicial review of the denial in a proceeding initiated under Article 78 of the CPLR.

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

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:jm

cc: Rita M. Blanco
Patricia N. Dohrenwend