August 26, 1996
Mr. Donald Morritt
Woodbourne Corr. Facility
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. Morritt:
I have received your letter of August 16 in which you sought assistance in obtaining your "mental health file" from the Onondaga County Department of Mental Health. You indicated that a request for the file was made under the Freedom of Information Law but that the request was not answered.
In this regard, while the Freedom of Information Law includes all records of a county, for example, within its scope, that statute would not govern rights of access in this instance.
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. 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 §33.13 of the Mental Hygiene Law, which prohibits mental health facilities from disclosing clinical records pertaining to a patient or client Consequently, the Freedom of Information Law would not confer rights of access to the records in question.
A different statute, however, deals directly with rights of access to mental health records to the subject of those records. Specifically, §33.16 of the Mental Hygiene Law provides rights of access to clinical mental health records, with certain exceptions, to "qualified persons," and paragraph 7 of subdivision (a) of that section defines that phrase to include "any properly identified patient or client." It appears that you are a "qualified person" and that you may assert rights of access under that statute.
Section 33.16(b) states in relevant part that a facility must respond to a request within ten days, and subdivision (d) of §33.13 pertains to the right to appeal a denial of access and states that:
"(d) Clinical records access review committees. The commissioner of mental health the commissioner of mental retardation and developmental disabilities and the commissioner of alcoholism and substance abuse services shall appoint clinical record access review committees to hear appeals of the denial of access to patient or client records as provided in paragraph four of subdivision (c) of this section. Members of such committee shall be appointed by the respective commissioners. Such clinical record access review committees shall consist of no less than three nor more than five persons. The commissioners shall promulgate rules and regulations necessary to effectuate the provisions of this subdivision."
If you do not receive a satisfactory response to your request, it is suggested you request the rules and regulations from the appropriate commissioner in order to ensure that you are following the correct procedure and that you can properly assert your rights.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: David Brownell, Commissioner