NY.gov Portal State Agency Listing

 

December 5, 1995

 

Mr. Philip King
#91-A-5926
Pouch No. 1
Woodbourne, NY 12788

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. King:

I have received your letter of October 31, which reached this office on November 6.

According to your letter, a Queens County assistant district attorney informed the court that a prosecution witness, a police officer, "had pending departmental charges against him stemming from [your] case", and that the police officer's case "was deferred until the conclusion of [your] case". Based on the assistant district attorney's opening statement, you wrote that "the document supporting this deferment...would be in the people's possession". In his response to your request, the records access officer denied access on the ground that transcripts of judicial proceedings are court records, citing Moore v. Santucci [151 AD 2d 677 (1989)], that are not subject to the Freedom of Information Law.

You have asked whether the record sought must be disclosed. In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, in my view, Moore generally stands for the principle that records maintained by an agency, including the office of a district attorney, that would ordinarily be deniable under the Freedom of Information Law become available to the public if they have been disclosed by means of a public judicial proceeding. As stated in that decision: "once the statements have been used in open court, they have lost their cloak of confidentiality and are available for inspection by a member of the public" (id. at 679). However, the decision specified that the respondent office of a district attorney "is not required to make available for inspection or copying any suppression hearing or trial transcripts of a witness' testimony in its possession, because the transcripts are court records, not agency records" (id. at 680).

While I agree with the statement offered by the records access officer, as I understand the matter, you did not request a transcript of a proceeding but rather a record to which reference was made in the transcript. If that is so, and if it is maintained by the office of the District Attorney, the record would be subject to rights conferred by the Freedom of Information Law. As a general matter that statute 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. Although I am unfamiliar with the record in question, it appears that three of the grounds for denial may be pertinent.

The first ground for denial, §87(2)(a), pertains to records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." One such statute is §50-a of the Civil Rights Law. In brief, that statute provides that personnel records of police and correction officers that are used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion are confidential. The Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, in reviewing the legislative history leading to its enactment, has held that §50-a is not a statute that exempts records from disclosure when a request is made under the Freedom of Information Law in a context unrelated to litigation. More specifically, in a case brought by a newspaper, it was found that:

"Given this history, the Appellate Division correctly determined that the legislative intent underlying the enactment of Civil Rights Law section 50-a was narrowly specific, 'to prevent time-consuming and perhaps vexatious investigation into irrelevant collateral matters in the context of a civil or criminal action' (Matter of Capital Newspapers Div. of Hearst Corp. v. Burns, 109 AD 2d 92, 96). In view of the FOIL's presumption of access, our practice of construing FOIL exemptions narrowly, and this legislative history, section 50-a should not be construed to exempt intervenor's 'Lost Time Record' from disclosure by the Police Department in a non-litigation context under Public Officers section 87(2)(a)" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 569 (1986)].

It was also found that the exemption from disclosure conferred by §50-a of the Civil Rights Law "was designed to limit access to said personnel records by criminal defense counsel, who used the contents of the records, including unsubstantiated and irrelevant complaints against officers, to embarrass officers during cross-examination" (id. at 568).

In another decision, which dealt with unsubstantiated complaints against correction officers, the Court of Appeals held that the purpose of §50-a "was to prevent the release of sensitive personnel records that could be used in litigation for purposes of harassing or embarrassing correction officers" [Prisoners' Legal Services v. NYS Department of Correctional Services, 73 NY 2d 26, 538 NYS 2d 190, 191 (1988)].

Also relevant is §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law 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. First, 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. Second, 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].

The third ground for denial of significance, §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. The record sought in my opinion consists of intra-agency material. However, insofar as your request involves a final agency determination, I believe that such a determination must be disclosed, again, unless a different ground for denial could be asserted.

In terms of the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law, I point out that in situations in which allegations or charges have resulted in the issuance of a written reprimand, disciplinary action, or findings that public employees have engaged in misconduct, records reflective of those kinds of determinations have been found to be available, including the names of those who are the subjects of disciplinary action [see Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); also Farrell, Geneva Printing, Scaccia and Sinicropi, supra]. Three of those decisions, Powhida, Scaccia and Farrell, involved findings of misconduct concerning police officers. Further, Scaccia dealt specifically with a determination by the Division of State Police to discipline a state police investigator. In that case, the Court rejected contentions that the record could be withheld as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy or on the basis of §50-a of the Civil Rights Law.

However, when allegations or charges of misconduct have not yet been determined or did not result in disciplinary action, the records relating to such allegations may likely be withheld, for disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Herald Company v. School District of City of Syracuse, 430 NYS 2d 460 (1980)].

Again, without knowledge of the precise nature or content of the record in question, I cannot provide specific advice. It appears, however, that rights of access would be contingent upon the considerations expressed in the preceding commentary. I hope that I have been of some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:pb

cc: William R. Horwitz
Steven J. Chananie