March 24, 2003
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter concerning a request directed to the Monroe County Water Authority in which you sought documents "explaining for what service the MCWA paid over the years to the law firm Harter, Secrest & Emery LLP..." In response to the request, you were informed that "many of these records contain attorney/client privilege communications and that the Monroe County Water Authority will be redacting this information from these records." You wrote that you are "puzzled with public entity claiming attorney/client privilege thus apparently conducting such business that might not be disclosed to the public" and asked whether the records in question can be "edited."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law is applicable to agency records, and §86(3) of that statute defines the term "agency" to include entities of state and local government. The definition makes specific reference to public authorities. Therefore, I believe that the Monroe County Water Authority is an agency required to comply with the Freedom of Information Law.
Second, as you are aware, 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 the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the exceptions that follow. In my view, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence evidences a recognition on the part of the Legislature that a single record or report, for example, might include portions that are available under the statute, as well as portions that might justifiably be withheld. That being so, I believe that it also imposes an obligation on an agency to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, might properly be withheld or deleted prior to disclosing the remainder.
The initial ground for denial, §87(2)(a), pertains to records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." For more than a century, the courts have found that legal advice given by an attorney for a government agency to his or her clients is privileged when it is prepared or imparted pursuant to an attorney-client relationship [see e.d., People ex rel. Updyke v. Gilon, 9 NYS 243, 244 (1889); Pennock v. Lane, 231 NYS 2d 897, 898, (1962); Bernkrant v. City Rent and Rehabilitation Administration, 242 NYS 2d 752 (1963), aff'd 17 App. Div. 2d 392]. As such, I believe that an attorney or firm may engage in a privileged relationship with his or her government client and that records prepared in conjunction with such an attorney-client relationship may be considered privileged under §4503 of the CPLR. Further, since the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, it has been found that records may be withheld when the privilege can appropriately be asserted and the attorney-client privilege is read in conjunction with §87(2)(a) of the Law [see e.g., Mid-Boro Medical Group v. New York City Department of Finance, Sup. Ct., Bronx Cty., NYLJ, December 7, 1979; Steele v. NYS Department of Health, 464 NY 2d 925 (1983)]. Similarly, the work product of an attorney may be confidential under §3101(c) of the Civil Practice Law and Rules.
In the first decision of which I am aware in which the request involved records sought under the Freedom of Information Law concerning services rendered by an attorney to a government agency, Knapp v. Board of Education, Canisteo Central School District (Supreme Court, Steuben County, November 23, 1990), the matter pertained to a request for billing statements for legal services provided to a board of education by a law firm. Since the statements made available included "only the time period covered and the total amount owed for services and disbursements", the applicant contended that "she is entitled to that billing information which would detail the fee, the type of matter for which the legal services were rendered and the names of the parties to any current litigation". In its discussion of the issue, the court found that: "The difficulty of defining the limits of the attorney client privilege has been recognized by the New York State Court of Appeals. (Matter of Priest v. Hennessy, 51 NY2d 62, 68.) Nevertheless, the Court has ruled that this privilege is not limitless and generally does not extend to the fee arrangements between an attorney and client. (Matter of Priest v. Hennessy, supra.)...
"There appear to be no New York cases which specifically address how much of a fee arrangement must be revealed beyond the name of the client, the amount billed and the terms of the agreement. However, the United States Court of Appeals, in interpreting federal law, has found that questions pertaining to the date and general nature of legal services performed were not violative of client confidentiality. (Cotton v. United States, 306 F.2d 633.) In that Court's analysis such information did not involve the substance of the matters being communicated and, consequently, was not privileged...
"...Respondents have not justified their refusal to obliterate any and all information which would reveal the date, general nature of service rendered and time spent. While the Court can understand that in a few limited instances the substance of a legal communication might be revealed in a billing statement, Respondents have failed to come forward with proof that such information is contained in each and every document so as to justify a blanket denial of disclosure. Conclusory characterizations are insufficient to support a claim of privilege. (Church of Scientology v. State of New York, 46 NY 2d 906, 908.)"
In short, in Knapp, even though portions of the records containing the time billed and the amount paid for the time, it was determined that other aspects of billing statements indicating "the general nature of legal services performed", as well as certain others, did not fall within the attorney- client privilege and were available.
In the other decision dealing with the issue under the Freedom of Information Law, Orange County Publications, Inc. v. County of Orange [637 NYS 2d 596 (1995)], the matter involved a request for "the amount of money paid in 1994 to a particular law firm for legal services rendered in representing the County in a landfill expansion suit, as well as "copies of invoices, bills, vouchers submitted to the county from the law firm justifying and itemizing the expenses for 1994" (id., 599). While monthly bills indicating amounts charged by the firm were disclosed, the agency redacted "'the daily descriptions of the specific tasks' (the description material) 'including descriptions of issues researched, meetings and conversations between attorney and client'" (id.).
Although the County argued that the "description material" is specifically exempted from disclosure by statute in conjunction with §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law and the assertion of the attorney-client privilege pursuant to §4503 of the CPLR, the court found that the mere communication between the law firm and the County as its client does not necessarily involve a privileged communication; rather, the court stressed that it is the content of the communications that determines the extent to which the privilege applies. Further, the court distinguished between actual communications between attorney and client and descriptions of the legal services provided, stating that:
"Thus, respondent's position can be sustained only if such descriptions rise to the level of protected communications...
"Consequently, while billing statements which 'are detailed in showing services, conversations, and conferences between counsel and others' are protected by the attorney-client privilege (Licensing Corporation of America v. National Hockey League Players Association, 153 Misc.2d 126, 127-128, 580 N.Y.S.2d 128 [Sup. Ct. N.Y.Co. 1992]; see, De La Roche v. De La Roche, 209 A.D.2d 157, 158-159 [1st Dept. 1994]), no such privilege attaches to fee statements which do not provide 'detailed accounts' of the legal services provided by counsel..." (id., 602).
In my view, a description of litigation strategy or legal advice, for example, would fall within the scope of the attorney client privilege; clearly the Freedom of Information Law does not serve as a vehicle for enabling the public, which includes an adversary or potential adversary in litigation, to know the thought processes of an attorney providing legal services to his or her client. However, as suggested in both Knapp and Orange County Publications, "descriptive" material reflective of the "general nature of services rendered", as well as the dates, times and duration of services rendered ordinarily would be beyond the coverage of the privilege.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Monroe County Water Authority