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October 9, 1996

 

 

Mr. Jeff Rockefeller
360 9th Street
Troy, NY 12180

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. Rockefeller:

As you are aware, I have received copies of your appeals addressed to the Rensselaer County Sheriff's Department. Upon delivery of those documents, you requested an advisory opinion.

One of the issues involves the apparent failure of the Department to respond to your requests or appeals. In this regard, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which an agency must respond to requests and appeals. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:

"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied..."

If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states in relevant part that:

"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."

In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d 774 (1982)].

Further, the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government (21 NYCRR Part 1401), which govern the procedural aspects of the Law, state that:

"(a) The governing body of a public corporation or the head, chief executive or governing body of other agencies shall hear appeals or shall designate a person or body to hear appeals regarding denial of access to records under the Freedom of Information Law.

(b) Denial of access shall be in writing stating the reason therefor and advising the person denied access of his or her right to appeal to the person or body established to hear appeals, and that person or body shall be identified by name, title, business address and business telephone number. The records access officer shall not be the appeals officer" (section 1401.7).

It is also noted that the state's highest court has held that a failure to inform a person denied access to records of the right to appeal enables that person to seek judicial review of a denial. Citing the Committee's regulations and the Freedom of Information Law, the Court of Appeals in Barrett v. Morgenthau held that:

"[i]nasmuch as the District Attorney failed to advise petitioner of the availability of an administrative appeal in the office (see, 21 NYCRR 1401.7[b]) and failed to demonstrate in the proceeding that the procedures for such an appeal had, in fact, even been established (see, Public Officers Law [section] 87[1][b], he cannot be heard to complain that petitioner failed to exhaust his administrative remedies" [74 NY 2d 907, 909 (1989)].

In short, an agency's records access officer has the duty individually, or in that person's role of coordinating the response to a request, to inform a person denied access of the right to appeal as well as the name and address of the person or body to whom an appeal may be directed.

The first appeal pertains to your request for records identifying the inmates who were transported to court with you on a particular date. Here I point out that the Freedom of Information Law applies to existing records, and that an agency is not required to create a record in response to a request [see §89(3)]. Therefore, if there is no record containing the information sought, the Department would not be required to prepare a new record on your behalf. However, if such a record exists, I believe that it would be accessible. 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. From my perspective, none of the grounds for denial could be justifiably asserted to withhold the information in question. I note that in a somewhat similar situation, it was held that records identifying inmates housed in a segregated housing unit at a state correctional facility with the inmate requesting the records had to be disclosed [Bensing v. LeFevre, 506 NYS2d 822 (1986)]. Also of possible relevance to the matter is §500-f of the Correction Law, which pertains to county jails and states that: "Each keeper shall keep a daily record, to be provided at the expense of the county, of the commitments and discharges of all prisoners delivered to his charge, which shall contain the date of entrance, name, offense, term of sentence, fine, age, sex, place of birth, color, social relations, education, secular and religious, for what and by whom committed, how and when discharged, trade or occupation, whether so employed when arrested, number of previous convictions. The daily record shall be a public record and shall be kept permanently in the office of the keeper."

The other appeal involves a request for records indicating "any history of misconduct" on the part of two employees of the Sheriff's Department. In this regard, the initial ground for denial, §87(2)(a), pertains to records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." One such statute is §50-a of the Civil Rights Law. In brief, that statute provides that personnel records of police and correction officers that are used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion are confidential. The Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, in reviewing the legislative history leading to its enactment, has held that §50-a is not a statute that exempts records from disclosure when a request is made under the Freedom of Information Law in a context unrelated to litigation. It was also found that the exemption from disclosure conferred by §50-a of the Civil Rights Law "was designed to limit access to said personnel records by criminal defense counsel, who used the contents of the records, including unsubstantiated and irrelevant complaints against officers, to embarrass officers during cross-examination" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NYS 2d 562, 568 (1986)].

In another decision, which dealt with unsubstantiated complaints against correction officers, the Court of Appeals held that the purpose of §50-a "was to prevent the release of sensitive personnel records that could be used in litigation for purposes of harassing or embarrassing correction officers" [Prisoners' Legal Services v. NYS Department of Correctional Services, 73 NY 2d 26, 538 NYS 2d 190, 191 (1988)].

Also relevant is §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law, which permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Although the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public employees. First, it is clear that public employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public employees are required to be more accountable than others. Second, with regard to records pertaining to public employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a public employee' s 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, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); 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 third 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. The records sought in my opinion consist of intra-agency materials. However, insofar as your 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]. Three of those decisions, Powhida, Scaccia and Farrell, involved findings of misconduct concerning police officers. Further, Scaccia dealt specifically with a determination by the Division of State Police to discipline a state police investigator. In that case, the Court rejected contentions that the record could be withheld as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy or on the basis of §50-a of the Civil Rights Law.

It is also noted, however, that in Scaccia, it was found that although a final determination reflective of a finding of misconduct is public, the records leading to the determination could be withheld. Further, when allegations or charges of misconduct have not yet been determined or did not result in disciplinary action, 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)]. Therefore, to the extent that charges are dismissed or allegations are found to be without merit, I believe that the records related to and including such charges or allegations may be withheld.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:jm

cc: Sheriff, Rensselaer County
Ingrid Gundrum