December 15, 1995
Mr. Julio Arce
Great Meadow Corr. Facility
PO Box 51
Comstock, NY 12821
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. Arce:
I have received your letter of December 12. As you requested, enclosed are copies of brochures pertaining to the Personal Privacy Protection Law and the Freedom of Information Law.
You wrote that you have experienced difficulty in obtaining records reflective of your "medical diagnosis/prognosis" from Lincoln Hospital and asked that I make an "official inquiry" on your behalf. Rather than contacting the Hospital, I offer the following comments.
First, Lincoln Hospital is part of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. Therefore, I believe that it is a unit of an agency required to comply with the Freedom of Information Law.
Second, in terms of rights granted by the Freedom of Information Law, the 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.
With regard to medical records, the Freedom of Information Law, in my view, likely permits that some of those records may be withheld in whole or in part, depending upon their contents. For instance, medical records prepared by Hospital personnel could be characterized as "intra-agency materials" that fall within the scope of §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law. To the extent that such materials consist of advice, opinion, recommendation and the like, I believe that the Freedom of Information Law would permit a denial.
Third, a different statute, §18 of the Public Health Law, generally grants rights of access to medical records to the subjects of the records. As such, that statute may provide greater access to medical records than the Freedom of Information Law. It is suggested that you renew your request and make specific reference to §18 of the Public Health Law in any request for medical records.
To obtain additional information concerning access to medical records and the fees that may be charged for searching and copying those records, you may write to:
Access to Patient Information Coordinator New York State Department of Health Division of Public Health Protection Corning Tower Building - Room 2517 Empire State Plaza Albany, New York 12237
Lastly, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied..."
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. 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, 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."
In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d 774 (1982)].
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman