May 8, 1996
Ms. Connie Lightner, CMC
Town of Vestal
605 Vestal Parkway
West Vestal, NY 13850
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 Ms. Lightner:
I have received your letter of April 25 in which you asked that I confirm in writing an opinion offer earlier during our telephone conversation.
You wrote that the Town of Vestal received a request "to look at the back of a check [you] paid a Company for repairs to [y]our Fire Trucks", and you added that the applicant for the record "is looking to apply a lien against this Company and wanted the name of the Company's Bank."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, as you are aware, 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.
Second, as a general matter, when records are accessible under the Freedom of Information Law, it has been held that they should be made equally available to any person, regardless of one's status, interest or the intended use of the records [see Burke v. Yudelson, 368 NYS 2d 779, aff'd 51 AD 2d 673, 378 NYS 2d 165 (1976)]. Moreover, the Court of Appeals, the State's highest court, has held 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 government 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" [Farbman v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984)].
Farbman pertained to a situation in which a person involved in litigation against an agency requested records from that agency under the Freedom of Information Law. In brief, it was found that one's status as a litigant had no effect upon that person's right as a member of the public when using the Freedom of Information Law, irrespective of the intended use of the records. Similarly, unless there is a basis for withholding records in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2), the intended use of the records is in my opinion irrelevant.
Third, in a case involving a request for copies of both sides of a check payable to a municipal officer, although the front side of cancelled checks was found to be public, it was held that the back of the check may be withheld on the ground that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see FOIL, §87(2)(b)]. The court found, in essence, that inspection of the back of a check could indicate how an individual chooses to spend his or her money, which is irrelevant to the performance of that person's duties(see Minerva v. Village of Valley Stream, Supreme Court, Nassau County, May 20, 1981).
In the context of the request that is the subject of your inquiry, the check does not pertain to a Town officer or employee or to a natural person. Rather, it pertains to a commercial entity. From my perspective and based upon judicial interpretations, §87(2)(b) is intended to pertain to natural persons, not entities or persons acting in business capacities. In a decision rendered by the State's highest court, the Court of Appeals, that focuses upon the privacy provisions, the court referred to the authority to withhold "certain personal information about private citizens" [see Matter of Federation of New York State Rifle and Pistol Clubs, Inc. v. The New York City Police Department, 73 NY 2d 92 (1989)]. In a decision involving a request for a list of names and addresses, the opinion of this office was cited and confirmed, and the court held that "the names and business addresses of individuals or entities engaged in animal farming for profit do not constitute information of a private nature, and this conclusion is not changed by the fact that a person's business address may also be the address of his or her residence" [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals v. New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, Supreme Court, Albany County, May 10, 1989). More recently, in a case concerning records pertaining to the performance of individual cardiac surgeons, the court granted access and cited an opinion prepared by this office in which it was advised that the information should be disclosed since it concerned professional activity licensed by the state (Newsday Inc. v. New York State Department of Health, Supreme Court, Albany County, October 15, 1991).
In short, because the record in question relates to a commercial entity, I do not believe that the provisions in the Freedom of Information Law pertaining to the protection of personal privacy could be asserted to withhold the record in question or that any other ground for denial would justify withholding the record.
I hope that the foregoing serves to clarify your understanding of the matter and that I have been of assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to contact me.
Robert J. Freeman