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September 30, 1996

 

 

Mr. Robert B. Liddell
114 Somerset Road
Syracuse, NY 13224

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. Liddell:

I have received your letter of September 17, as well as the materials related to it. You requested records from the Auburn Enlarged City School District concerning a teacher who resigned in 1980. The records sought pertain to the teacher's termination, discipline and "incidence of sexual abuse." Although he disclosed the minutes of the meeting during which the Board of Education accepted the teacher's resignation, the Superintendent of Schools denied access to the other records sought and wrote that "items contained in the district's personnel files are not accessible...as they are not public records.

You have sought assistance in obtaining the records. In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records. Therefore, insofar as the information sought does not exist in the form of a record or records, or if records have legally been destroyed because of their age, the Freedom of Information Law would not apply.

Second, to the extent that records continue to exist, 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.

It is emphasized that 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.

In the context of your inquiry, 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, as you are aware, §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 public officers and employees are required to be more accountable than others. With regard to records pertaining to public officers and employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, 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].

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. Insofar as a request involves final agency determinations, I believe that those determinations must be disclosed, again, unless a different ground for denial could be asserted.

In terms of the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law, I point out that in situations in which allegations or charges have resulted in the issuance of a written reprimand, disciplinary action, or findings that public employees have engaged in misconduct, records reflective of those kinds of determinations have been found to be available, including the names of those who are the subjects of disciplinary action [see Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); also Farrell, Geneva Printing, Scaccia and Sinicropi, supra].

In Geneva Printing, supra, a public employee charged with misconduct and in the process of an arbitration hearing engaged in a settlement agreement with a municipality. One aspect of the settlement was an agreement to the effect that its terms would remain confidential. Notwithstanding the agreement of confidentiality, which apparently was based on an assertion that "the public interest is benefited by maintaining harmonious relationships between government and its employees", the court found that no ground for denial could justifiably be cited to withhold the agreement. On the contrary, it was determined that:

"the citizen's right to know that public servants are held accountable when they abuse the public trust outweighs any advantage that would accrue to municipalities were they able to negotiate disciplinary matters with its employee with the power to suppress the terms of any settlement".

It was also found that the record indicating the terms of the settlement constituted a final agency determination available under the Law. The decision states that:

"It is the terms of the settlement, not just a notation that a settlement resulted, which comprise the final determination of the matter. The public is entitled to know what penalty, if any, the employee suffered...The instant records are the decision or final determination of the village, albeit arrived at by settlement..."

In another decision involving a settlement agreement between a school district and a teacher, it was held in Anonymous v. Board of Education [616 NYS 2d 867 (1994)] that:

"...it is disingenuous for petitioner to argue that public disclosure is permissible...only where an employee is found guilty of a specific charge. The settlement agreement at issue in the instant case contains the petitioner's express admission of guilt to a number of charges and specifications. This court does not perceive the distinction between a finding of guilt after a hearing and an admission of guilt insofar as protection from disclosure is concerned" (id., 870).

The court also referred to contentions involving privacy as follows:

"Petitioner contends that disclosure of the terms of the settlement at issue in this case would constitute an unwarranted invasion of his privacy prohibited by Public Officers Law § 87(2)(b). Public Officers Law § 89(2)(b) defines an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy as, in pertinent part, '(i) disclosure of employment, medical or credit histories or personal references of applicants for employment.' Petitioner argues that the agreement itself provides that it shall become part of his personnel file and that material in his personnel file is exempt from disclosure..." (id.).

In response to those contentions, the decision stated that:

"This court rejects that conclusion as establishing an exemption from disclosure not created by statute (Public Officers Law § 87[2][a]), and not within the contemplation of the 'employment, medical or credit history' language found under the definition of 'unwarranted invasion of personal privacy' at Public Officers Law § 89(2)(b)(i). In fact, the information sought in the instant case, i.e., the terms of settlement of charges of misconduct lodged against a teacher by the Board of Education, is not information in which petitioner has any reasonable expectation of privacy where the agreement contains the teacher's admission to much of the misconduct charged. The agreement does not contain details of the petitioner's personal history-but it does contain the details of admitted misconduct toward students, as well as the agreed penalty. The information is clearly of significant interest to the public, insofar as it is a final determination and disposition of matters within the work of the Board of Education and reveals the process of and basis for government decision-making. This is not a case where petitioner is to be protected from possible harm to his professional reputation from unfounded accusations (Johnson Newspaper Corp. v. Melino, 77 N.Y.2d 1, 563 N.Y.S.2d 380, 564 N.E.ed 1046), for this court regards the petitioner's admission to the conduct described in the agreement as the equivalent of founded accusations. As such, the agreement is tantamount to a final agency determination not falling within the privacy exemption of FOIL 'since it was not a disclosure of employment history.'" (id., 871).

Most recently, in LaRocca v. Board of Education of Jericho Union Free School District [632 NYS 2d 576 (1995)], even though the sanction was far short of a removal from employment, the Appellate Division held that a settlement agreement was available insofar as it included admissions of misconduct. In that case, charges were initiated under §3020-a of the Education Law, but were later "disposed of by negotiation and settled by an Agreement" (id., 577) and withdrawn. The court rejected claims that the record could be characterized as an employment history that could be withheld as an unwarranted invasion of privacy, and found that a confidentiality agreement was invalid. Specifically, it was stated that:

"Having examined the settlement agreement, we find that the entire document does not constitute an 'employment history' as defined by FOIL (see, Matter of Hanig v. State of New York Dept. of Motor Vehicles, supra) and it is therefore presumptively available for public inspection (see, Public Officers Law § 87[2]; Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health and Hosps. Corp., supra, 62 N.Y.2d 75, 476 N.Y.S.2d 69, 464 N.E.2d 437). Moreover, as a matter of public policy, the Board of Education cannot bargain away the public's right of access to public records (see, Board of Educ., Great Neck Union Free School Dist. v. Areman, 41 N.Y.2d 527, 394 N.Y.S.2d 143, 362 N.E.2d 943)" (id., 578, 579).

Notwithstanding the foregoing, 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.

Lastly, of potential relevance is the first ground for denial, §87(2)(a), which pertains to records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute". One such statute is the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (20 U.S.C. §1232g), which is commonly known as the "Buckley Amendment". In brief, the Buckley Amendment applies to all educational agencies or institutions that participate in grant programs administered by the United States Department of Education. As such, the Buckley Amendment includes within its scope virtually all public educational institutions and many private educational institutions. The focal point of the Act is the protection of privacy of students. It provides, in general, that any "education record," a term that is broadly defined, that is personally identifiable to a particular student or students is confidential, unless the parents of students under the age of eighteen waive their right to confidentiality, or unless a student eighteen years or over similarly waives his or her right to confidentiality. In short, absent consent to disclose by a parent of a student under the age of eighteen or a student who has reached that age, the District could not in my opinion disclose records or portions thereof that would identify a particular student or students.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: Carl P. Mangee, Ph.D., Superintendent of Schools