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August 14, 1996

 

 

Mr. Robert J. Ponzini
Village Attorney
Village of Hastings-on-Hudson
Municipal Building at Fulton Park
7 Maple Avenue
Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706-1497

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. Ponzini:

I have received your letter in which you seek an advisory opinion concerning the Freedom of Information Law.

By way of background, in your capacity as Village Attorney for the Village of Hastings-on-Hudson, you described litigation in which the Village is a third party defendant. In an effort to settle the litigation, you indicated that the parties have been involved in numerous conferences held at the request of the Court during which settlement options have been discussed. Detailed correspondence and proposals have been exchanged at the request of the Court among the parties, and you stressed that during the initial phases of the settlement negotiations, the parties asked that the information be "held in confidence" due to concerns that public disclosure "might impair the viability of negotiations."

Having received a request for "a detailed work plan offered by one of the parties", you wrote that your review of the Freedom of Information Law suggests that none of the exceptions to rights of access could likely be asserted. However, you referred to §87(2)(c), the exception that authorizes an agency to withhold records insofar as disclosure would "impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations." You have contended that your situation is "strikingly similar", for disclosure of the records in question "might, if revealed, impair the ongoing negotiations."

From my perspective, it is unlikely that you could justify a denial of access on the basis of §87(2)(c) or any of the other grounds for denial. 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.

In my view, the proper assertion of §87(2)(c) generally encompasses situations in which an agency or a party to negotiations maintains records that have not been made available to others. For example, if an agency seeking bids or proposals has received a number of bids, but the deadline for their submission has not been reached, premature disclosure for the bids to another possible submitter might provide that person or firm with an unfair advantage vis a vis those who already submitted bids. Further, disclosure of the identities of bidders or the number of bidders might enable another potential bidder to tailor his bid in a manner that provides him with an unfair advantage in the bidding process. In such a situation, harm or "impairment" would likely be the result, and the records could justifiably be denied. However, after the deadline for submission of bids or proposals are available after a contract has been awarded, and that, in view of the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law, "the successful bidder had no reasonable expectation of not having its bid open to the public" [Contracting Plumbers Cooperative Restoration Corp. v. Ameruso, 105 Misc. 2d 951, 430 NYS 2d 196, 198 (1980)]. Similarly, if an agency is involved in collective bargaining negotiations with a public employee union, and the union requests records reflective of the agency's strategy, the items that it considers to be important or otherwise, its estimates and projections, it is likely that disclosure to the union would place the agency at an unfair disadvantage at the bargaining table and, therefore, that disclosure would "impair" negotiating the process.

I point out in good faith that the Court of Appeals sustained the assertion of §87(2)(c) in a case that did not clearly involve "contract awards" or collective bargaining negotiations. In Murray v. Troy Urban Renewal Agency [56 NY2d 888 (1982)], the issue pertained to real property transactions where appraisals in possession of an agency were requested prior to the consummation of a transaction. Because premature disclosure would have enabled the public to know the prices the agency sought, thereby potentially precluding the agency from receiving optimal prices, the agency's denial was upheld [see Murray v. Troy Urban Renewal Agency, 56 NY 2d 888 (1982)].

In each of the kinds of the situations described above, there is an inequality of knowledge. In the bid situation, the person who seeks bids prior to the deadline for their submission is presumably unaware of the content of the bids that have already been submitted; in the context of collective bargaining, the union would not have all of the agency's records relevant to the negotiations; in the appraisal situation, the person seeking that record is unfamiliar with its contents. As suggested above, premature disclosure of bids would enable a potential bidder to gain knowledge in a manner unfair to other bidders and possibly to the detriment of an agency and, therefore, the public. Disclosure of an records regarding collective bargaining strategy or appraisals would provide knowledge to the recipient that might effectively prevent an agency from engaging in an agreement that is most beneficial to taxpayers.

In a case involving negotiations between a New York City agency and the Trump organization, the court referred to an opinion that I prepared and adopted the reasoning offered therein, stating that:

"Section 87(2)(c) relates to withholding records whose release could impair contract awards. However, here this was not relevant because there is no bidding process involved where an edge could be unfairly given to one company. Neither is this a situation where the release of confidential information as to the value or appraisals of property could lead to the City receiving less favorable price.

"In other words, since the Trump organization is the only party involved in these negotiations, there is no inequality of knowledge between other entities doing business with the City" [Community Board 7 v. Schaffer, 570 NYS 2d 769, 771 (1991); Aff'd 83 AD 2d 422; reversed on other grounds 84 NY 2d 148 (1994)].

Based on the foregoing, if the Village and the other parties to the litigation are aware of the content of the records at issue, the rationale described above and the judicial decisions rendered to date suggest that §87(2)(c) could not justifiably be asserted to withhold the records in question.

I believe that the same conclusion may be reached by considering the matter from a different vantage point more typically associated with litigation. The initial ground for denial in the Freedom of Information Law, §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", 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)].

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 Village and the parties 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 Village 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 noted further that an assertion or claim of confidentiality, unless it is based upon a statute, is generally meaningless. When confidentiality is conferred by a statute, an act of the State Legislature or Congress, records fall outside the scope of rights of access pursuant to §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, which, again, states that an agency may withhold records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute". If there is no statute upon which an agency can rely to characterize records as "confidential" or "exempted from disclosure", the records are subject to whatever rights of access exist under the Freedom of Information Law [see Doolan v.BOCES, 48 NY 2d 341 (1979); Washington Post v. Insurance Department, 61 NY 2d 557 (1984); Gannett News Service, Inc. v. State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, 415 NYS 2d 780 (1979)]. As such, an assertion of confidentiality without more, would not in my view serve to enable an agency to withhold a record.

Lastly, it is emphasized that the courts have consistently interpreted the Freedom of Information Law in a manner that fosters maximum access. As stated by the Court of Appeals soon after the enactment of the amended version of the Freedom of Information Law:

"To be sure, the balance is presumptively struck in favor of disclosure, but in eight specific, narrowly constructed instances where the governmental agency convincingly demonstrates its need, disclosure will not be ordered (Public Officers Law, section 87, subd 2). Thus, the agency does not have carte blanche to withhold any information it pleases. Rather, it is required to articulate particularized and specific justification and, if necessary, submit the requested materials to the courts for in camera inspection, to exempt its records from disclosure (see Church of Scientology of N.Y. v. State of New York, 46 NY 2d 906, 908). Only where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld" [Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571 (1979)]."

In another decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, it was held that:

"Exemptions are to be narrowly construed to provide maximum access, and the agency seeking to prevent disclosure carries the burden of demonstrating that the requested material falls squarely within a FOIL exemption by articulating a particularized and specific justification for denying access" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 566 (1986); see also, Farbman & Sons v. New York City, 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984); and Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571 (1979)].

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

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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