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September 9, 1996

 

 

Mr. Willard F. Miller
Attorney At Law
4 Beech Street
Garden City, NY 11530

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. Miller:

I have received your letter of August 26 in which you requested an advisory opinion concerning the Freedom of Information Law. Specifically, you asked whether that statute confers rights of access to "[a]ll tapes of interviews, transcripts, notes, correspondence, logs and any and all information found and produced during an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General." You wrote that the investigation to which the records relate "has been closed and resulted in no action."

You did not indicate whether a request for the records in question might be made, for example, by a member of the public or news media, a complainant, or the subject of an investigation. While rights of access would likely differ to some extent with respect to those three categories of applicants, any such rights would in my view be narrow.

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.

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].

Several of the decisions cited above, 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)]. In addition, to the extent that charges are dismissed or allegations are found to be without merit, I believe that they may be withheld.

In view of the duties of the Inspector General, also potentially relevant is §87(2)(e), which states in part that an agency may withhold records that:

"are compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would:

i. interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings...

iii. identify a confidential source or disclose confidential information relating to a criminal investigation..."

In Hawkins v. Kurlander [98 AD 2d 14 (1938)], while the facts were different from the situation you presented, the Appellate Division referred to and "adopted" the view of federal courts under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The Court cited Pape v. United States (599 F.2d 1383, 1387), which held that a major purpose of the "law enforcement" exception "is to encourage private citizens to furnish controversial information to government agencies by assuring confidentiality under certain circumstances" (Hawkins, supra, at 16). Similarly, the Appellate Division in Gannett v. James cited §87(2)(e)(i) and (iii) in upholding a denial of complaints made to law enforcement agencies, stating that:

"the confidentiality afforded to those wishing it in reporting abuses is an important element in encouraging reports of possible misconduct which might not otherwise be made. Thus, these complaints are exempt from disclosure which might interfere with law enforcement investigations and identify a confidential source or disclose confidential information" [86 AD 2d 744, 745 (1982)].

Further, it has generally been advised that those portions of a complaint which identify complainants may be withheld on the ground that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. As indicated earlier, §89(2)(b) contains examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy, the last two of which include:

"iv. disclosure of information of a personal nature when disclosure would result in economic or personal hardship to the subject party and such information is not relevant to the work of the agency requesting or maintaining it; or

v. disclosure of information of a personal nature reported in confidence to an agency and not relevant to the ordinary work of such agency."

In my view, what is relevant to the work of the agency is the substance of the complaint, i.e., whether or not the complaint has merit. The identity of the person who made the complaint is often irrelevant to the work of the agency, and in such circumstances, I believe that identifying details may be withheld.

The remaining ground for denial of apparent relevance would be §87(2)(g), which permits an agency to 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.

Many of the records prepared in conjunction with an investigation would constitute inter-agency or 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 employees interviewed would fall within the scope of the exception.

I note that the Personal Privacy Protection Law (Public Officers Law, Article 6-A) generally applies to records maintained by state agencies that contain personal information. Although §95(1) of that statute generally grants rights of access to records to a person to whom the records pertain, §95(7) provides that rights of access conferred by that statute "shall not apply to public safety agency records". The phrase "public safety agency record" is defined by §92(8) to mean:

"a record of the commission of corrections, the temporary state commission of investigation, the department of correctional services, the division for youth, the division of probation or the division of state police or of any agency of component thereof whose primary function is the enforcement of civil or criminal statutes if such record pertains to investigation, law enforcement, confinement of persons in correctional facilities or supervision of persons pursuant to criminal conviction or court order, and any records maintained by the division of criminal justice services pursuant to sections eight hundred thirty-seven, eight hundred thirty seven-a, eight hundred thirty-seven-c, eight hundred thirty-eight, eight hundred thirty-nine, eight hundred forty-five, and eight hundred forty-five-a of the executive law."

Therefore, rights of access granted by the Personal Privacy Protection Law do not extend to records of agencies or units within agencies whose primary functions involve investigation, law enforcement or the confinement or persons in correctional facilities. In my opinion, the kinds of records at issue would constitute public safety agency records and, therefore, the Personal Privacy Protection Law would not grant rights of access to a data subject in the circumstance that you described.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, an individual who provided a statement or whose testimony was transcribed would have rights of access to those records. However, again, I do not believe that the subject of the investigation would have rights of access to portions of records identifiable to a complainant or witness, for example, even though they may relate to the subject.

I hope that I have been of assistance. Should any questions arise concerning the foregoing, please feel free to contact me.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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