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March 26, 1996

 

 

Ms. Betsy Sullivan
29 Route 416
Montgomery, NY 12549

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, unless otherwise indicated.

Dear Ms. Sullivan:

I have received your letter of March 7, as well as a variety of related correspondence.

In brief, you and others have alleged that an employee of the New York State Department of Transportation has engaged in misconduct, and you wrote that Department officials provided "assurances...that appropriate action would be taken." Although you were apparently informed that the subject of your allegations was issued a "counseling memo", you indicated that you have attempted since January, without success, to obtain the results of the Department's investigation and answers to your inquiries. You have asked for assistance in obtaining the information sought.

In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, it is noted at the outset that the title of the Freedom of Information Law may be somewhat misleading, for it is not a vehicle that requires agencies to provide information per se; rather, it requires agencies to disclose records to the extent provided by law. As such, while agency officials may in many circumstances choose to answer questions or to provide information by responding to questions, those steps would represent actions beyond the scope of the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law. Moreover, the Freedom of Information pertains to existing records. Section 89(3) of that statute states in part that an agency need not create a record in response to a request. In short, Department officials in my view would not be obliged to provide the information sought by answering questions or preparing new records in an effort to be responsive.

Second, as I understand the matter, the "result" of the Department's investigation was the issuance of a counseling memo. As that phrase is commonly used, a counseling memo does not represent a determination to the effect that an employee has been found to have engaged in misconduct; rather, a counseling memo is essentially a warning, an admonition, or advice offered to an employee. If my interpretation of the matter is accurate, based on the ensuing analysis, the counseling memo and much of the documentation leading to its preparation could justifiably be withheld.

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.

There is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that deals specifically with personnel records or personnel files. Further, the nature and content of so-called personnel files may differ from one agency to another, and from one employee to another. In any case, neither the characterization of documents as "personnel records" nor their placement in personnel files would necessarily render those documents "confidential" or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law (see Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980). On the contrary, the contents of those documents serve as the relevant factors in determining the extent to which they are available or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law.

Perhaps of greatest significance is §87(2)(b), which permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy". In addition, §89(2)(b) provides a series of examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy.

While the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public officers employees. It is clear that public officers and employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that they are required to be more accountable than others. With regard to records pertaining to public officers and employees, the courts have found that, in general, records that are relevant to the performance of a their 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, supra; 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]. One of the decisions cited above, Capital Newspapers, involved an element of your request that was granted. That case dealt with a request for records indicating the days and dates of sick leave claimed by a particular employee, and it was held that those records were relevant to the performance of the employee's duties and, therefore, were accessible. On the basis of that decision, it is clear that time and attendance records must be disclosed.

The other 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.

Records prepared in conjunction with an investigation would in my view constitute intra-agency materials. Insofar as they consist of opinions, advice, conjecture, recommendations and the like, I believe that they could be withheld. For instance, recommendations concerning the course of an investigation or opinions offered by witnesses or employees interviewed could be in my opinion withheld. However, factual information would in my view be available, except to the extent, under the circumstances, that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Several of the decisions cited above, for example, Farrell, Sinicropi, Geneva Printing, Scaccia and Powhida, dealt with situations in which determinations indicating the imposition of some sort of disciplinary action pertaining to particular public employees were found to be available. However, when allegations or charges of misconduct have not yet been determined or did not result in disciplinary action or a finding of misconduct, the records relating to such allegations may, in my view, 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)]. Similarly, to the extent that charges are dismissed or allegations are found to be without merit, I believe that they may be withheld.

Further, if indeed a counseling memo is essentially a warning rather than a conclusion reflective of a finding of misconduct, it would not constitute a final agency determination, and I believe that it could be withheld under §87(2)(g).

I hope that the foregoing serves to enhance your understanding of the Freedom of Information Law and that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:pb

cc: William T. Bonacum
John B. Dearstyne
Peter Shawhan