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
I have received your letter of October 27 in which you expressed concerns relating to
the implementation of the Open Meetings Law by the Board of Managers of the Massena
Memorial Hospital. The Board's attorney has contended that there is no requirement that
cases be identified in motions to enter into executive session to discuss litigation. You also
questioned whether Board members must keep information acquired during an executive
session confidential when the matter considered should have been discussed in public.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, as you are aware, the Open Meetings Law requires that a procedure be
accomplished, during an open meeting, before a public body may enter into an executive
session. Specifically, §105(1) states in relevant part that:
"Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only..."
As such, a motion to conduct an executive session must include reference to the subject or
subjects to be discussed, and the motion must be carried by majority vote of a public body's membership before such a session may validly be held. The ensuing provisions of §105(1) specify and limit the subjects that may appropriately be considered during an executive session.
The provision that deals with litigation is §105(1)(d), which permits a public body to enter into an executive session to discuss "proposed, pending or current litigation". In construing the language quoted above, it has been held that:
"The purpose of paragraph d is "to enable is to enable a public
body to discuss pending litigation privately, without baring its
strategy to its adversary through mandatory public meetings'
(Matter of Concerned Citizens to Review Jefferson Val. Mall
v. Town Bd. Of Town of Yorktown, 83 AD 2d 612, 613, 441
NYS 2d 292). The belief of the town's attorney that a decision
adverse to petitioner 'would almost certainly lead to litigation'
does not justify the conducting of this public business in an executive session. To accept this argument would be to accept the view that any public body could bar the public from its
meetings simply be expressing the fear that litigation may result from actions taken therein. Such a view would be contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the exception"
[Weatherwax v. Town of Stony Point, 97 AD 2d 840, 841 (1983)].
Based upon the foregoing, I believe that the exception is intended to permit a public body to
discuss its litigation strategy behind closed doors, rather than issues that might eventually
result in litigation. With regard to the sufficiency of a motion to discuss litigation, it has been held that:
"It is insufficient to merely regurgitate the statutory language;
to wit, 'discussions regarding proposed, pending or current
litigation'. This boilerplate recitation does not comply with the
intent of the statute. To validly convene an executive session for discussion of proposed, pending or current litigation, the public body must identify with particularity the pending,
proposed or current litigation to be discussed during the executive session" [Daily Gazette Co. , Inc. v. Town Board, Town of Cobleskill, 44 NYS 2d 44, 46 (1981), emphasis added by court].
As such, a proper motion might be: "I move to enter into executive session to discuss our
litigation strategy in the case of the XYZ Company v. the Hospital."
Another provision that is frequently cited is the so-called "personnel" exception, §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law. It is emphasized, however, that its language is limited
and precise. In terms of legislative history, as originally enacted, the provision in question
permitted a public body to enter into an executive session to discuss:
"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of any person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of any person or corporation..."
Under the language quoted above, public bodies often convened executive sessions to discuss matters that dealt with "personnel" generally, tangentially, or in relation to policy concerns. However, the Committee consistently advised that the provision was intended largely to protect privacy and not to shield matters of policy under the guise of privacy.
To attempt to clarify the Law, the Committee recommended a series of amendments to the Open Meetings Law, several of which became effective on October 1, 1979. The recommendation made by the Committee regarding §105(1)(f) was enacted and states that a public body may enter into an executive session to discuss:
"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a
particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the
appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline,
suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation..." (emphasis added).
Due to the insertion of the term "particular" in §105(1)(f), I believe that a discussion of
"personnel" may be considered in an executive session only when the subject involves a
particular person or persons, and only when at least one of the topics listed in §105(1)(f) is
It has been advised that a motion describing the subject to be discussed as "personnel"
or "specific personnel matters" is inadequate, and that the motion should be based upon the
§105(1)(f). For instance, a proper motion might be: "I move to enter
into an executive session to discuss the employment history of a particular person (or persons)". Such a motion would not in my opinion have to identify the person or persons
who may be the subject of a discussion. By means of the kind of motion suggested above,
members of a public body and others in attendance would have the ability to know that there is a proper basis for entry into an executive session. Absent such detail, neither the members nor others may be able to determine whether the subject may properly be considered behind closed doors.
It is noted that the Appellate Division confirmed the advice rendered by this office.
In discussing §105(1)(f) in relation to a matter involving the establishment and functions of a
position, the Court stated that:
"...the public body must identify the subject matter to be
discussed (See, Public Officers Law § 105 ), and it is
apparent that this must be accomplished with some degree of
particularity, i.e., merely reciting the statutory language is insufficient (see, Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, 111 Misc 2d 303, 304-305). Additionally, the topics discussed during the executive session must remain within the exceptions enumerated in the statute (see generally, Matter of Plattsburgh Publ. Co., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v
City of Plattsburgh, 185 AD2d §18), and these exceptions, in turn, 'must be narrowly scrutinized, lest the article's clear mandate be thwarted by thinly veiled references to the areas delineated thereunder' (Weatherwax v Town of Stony Point, 97 AD2d 840, 841, quoting Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, supra, at 304; see, Matter of Orange County Publs., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v County of Orange, 120 AD2d 596, lv dismissed 68 NY 2d 807).
"Applying these principles to the matter before us, it is
apparent that the Board's stated purpose for entering into
executive session, to wit, the discussion of a 'personnel issue',
does not satisfy the requirements of Public Officers Law § 105 (1) (f). The statute itself requires, with respect to personnel matters, that the discussion involve the 'employment history of a particular person" (id. [emphasis supplied]). Although this does not mandate that the individual in question be identified by name, it does require that any motion to enter into executive session describe with some detail the nature of the proposed discussion (see, State Comm on Open Govt Adv Opn dated Apr. 6, 1993), and we reject respondents' assertion that the Board's reference to a 'personnel issue' is the functional equivalent of identifying 'a particular person'" [Gordon v. Village of Monticello, 620 NY 2d 573, 575; 207 AD 2d 55 (1994)].
Based on the foregoing, a proper motion might be: "I move to enter into an executive session to discuss the employment history of a particular person (or persons)". Such a motion would not in my opinion have to identify the person or persons who may be the subject of a discussion [see Doolittle v. Board of Education, Supreme Court, Chemung County, July 21, 1981; also Becker v. Town of Roxbury, Supreme Court, Chemung County, April 1, 1983]. By means of the kind of motion suggested above, members of a public body and others in attendance would have the ability to know that there is a proper basis for entry into an executive session. Absent such detail, neither the members nor others may be able to determine whether the subject may properly be considered behind closed doors.
Since you referred to closed sessions to discuss "quality assurance", I point out that a
second vehicle for excluding the public from a meeting involves "exemptions." Section 108 of the Open Meetings Law contains three exemptions. When an exemption applies, the Open Meetings Law does not, and the requirements that would operate with respect to executive sessions are not in effect. Stated differently, to discuss a matter exempted from the Open Meetings Law, a public body need not follow the procedure imposed by §105(1) that relates to entry into an executive session.
Potentially relevant to your comments is §108(3), which exempts from the Open Meetings Law:
"...any matter made confidential by federal or state law."
In this regard, §2805-j of the Public Health Law pertains to quality assurance by hospitals
and states in part that:
"1. Every hospital shall maintain a coordinated program for the identification and prevention of medical, dental and pediatric malpractice. Such program shall include at least the following:
(a) The establishment of a quality assurance committee with
the responsibility to review the services rendered in the hospital
in order to improve the quality of medical, dental and pediatric
care of patients and to prevent medical, dental and pediatric
malpractice. Such committee shall oversee and coordinate the
medical, dental and pediatric malpractice prevention program
and shall insure that information gathered pursuant to the
program is utilized to review procedures. At least one member
of the committee shall be a member of the governing board of
the hospital who is not otherwise affiliated with the hospital in
an employment or contractual capacity."
Other provisions of §2805-j involve the development of procedures concerning competence, the periodic review of credentials, and the collection of information concerning a hospital's experience with "negative health care outcomes and incidents injurious to patients." Section 2805-k involves investigations undertaken by hospitals prior to the granting or renewal of professional privileges. Section 2805-l requires that hospitals report certain kinds of "incidents" to the Health Department, and that investigations be performed and reported to the Department concerning those incidents.
Perhaps most important in terms of your inquiry is §2805-m, which states in part that:
"1. The information required to be collected and maintained
pursuant to sections twenty-eight hundred five-j and twenty-eight hundred five-k of this article, reports required to be
submitted pursuant to section twenty-eight hundred five-l of this article and any incident reporting requirements imposed upon diagnostic and treatment centers pursuant to the
provisions of this chapter shall be kept confidential and shall not be released except to the department or pursuant to subdivision four of section twenty-eight hundred five-k of this
2. Notwithstanding any other provisions of law, none of the
records, documentation or committee actions or records
required pursuant to sections twenty-eight hundred five-j and
twenty-eight hundred five-k of this article, the reports required pursuant to section twenty-eight hundred five-l of this article nor any incident reporting requirements imposed upon
diagnostic and treatment centers pursuant to the provisions of this chapter shall be subject to disclosure under article six of the public officers law or article thirty-one of the civil practice law and rules, except as hereinafter provided or as provided by any other provision of law."
Article six of the Public Officers Law is the Freedom of Information Law. Therefore, when
records involve quality assurance pursuant to §§2805-j, k or l of the Public Health Law, they must be kept confidential, notwithstanding the provisions of the Freedom of Information Law.
Since the records concerning a quality assurance function are made confidential under the Public Health Law, a discussion of information acquired in carrying out that function would be exempted from the Open Meetings Law.
Lastly, both the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Law are
permissive. While the Open Meetings Law authorizes public bodies to conduct executive
sessions in circumstances described in paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1), there is no
requirement that an executive session be held even though a public body has right to do so.
Further, the introductory language of §105(1), which prescribes a procedure that must be
accomplished before an executive session may be held, clearly indicates that a public body
"may" conduct an executive session only after having completed that procedure. If, for
example, a motion is made to conduct an executive session for a valid reason, and the motion is not carried, the public body could either discuss the issue in public, or table the matter for discussion in the future. Similarly, although the Freedom of Information Law permits an agency to withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial, it has been held by the Court of Appeals that the exceptions are permissive rather than mandatory, and that an agency may choose to disclose records even though the authority to withhold exists [Capital Newspapers v. Burns], 67 NY 2d 562, 567 (1986)].
Further, even when information might have been obtained during an executive session
properly held or from records marked "confidential", I note that the term "confidential" in my view has a narrow and precise technical meaning. For records or information to be validly characterized as confidential, I believe that such a claim must be based upon a statute that specifically confers or requires confidentiality, such as §2805-m of the Public Health Law.
In response to your question, if a matter discussed during an executive session should have been discussed in public, there is no law of which I am aware that would preclude a person in attendance from disclosing information relating to the matter.
As you requested, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to the persons that you identified.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: John Mereau, President, Board of Managers
Hon. Jack Sauve, Supervisor