January 13, 1997
Mr. Freddie Cup
Greenhaven Correctional Facility
Stormville, NY 12582-0010
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. Cup:
I have received your letter of December 9. You have questioned your ability to obtain complaints and similar records pertaining to a correction officer.
In this regard, 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.
Most relevant in this instance is the initial 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 §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. It has been 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 NY 2d 652, 568 (1986)].
In another decision, which dealt with unsubstantiated complaints against correction officers, the Court of Appeals upheld a denial of access and found 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)].
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 v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty. March 25, 1981; Scaccia v. NYS Division of State Police, 530 NYS 2d 309, 138 AD 2d 50 (1988) and Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980)].
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., Prisoners' Legal Services, supra; also 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.
In sum, it is suggested that you review the provisions of §50-a of the Civil Rights Law, for that statute would in my view govern disclosure of the records in which you are interested. I believe that §50-a would require a judicial review of the records, and it is, therefore, suggested that you discuss the matter with your attorney.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman