July 7, 2003
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, unless otherwise indicated.
I have received a variety of correspondence from you, the Village of Penn Yan and Yates County relating to your attempts to review the employment application and personnel records of a Village police officer. The Village and Yates County have not been able to locate the application, and your request to review the personnel file was rejected pursuant to §50-a of the Civil Rights Law.
Based on a review of the materials, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which an agency, such as a village, 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 [see DeCorse v. City of Buffalo, 239 AD2d 949, 950 (1997)]. 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 Law and Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY2d 774 (1982)].
Second, when an agency indicates that it does not maintain or cannot locate a record, an applicant for the record may seek a certification to that effect. Section 89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law provides in part that, in such a situation, on request, an agency "shall certify that it does not have possession of such record or that such record cannot be found after diligent search." If you consider it worthwhile to do so, you could seek such a certification.
Third, I point out that the Freedom of Information Law is applicable to all records maintained by or for an agency. Whether the records of your interest are maintained within a personnel file or elsewhere, if they exist, I believe that they are subject to whatever rights of access exist.
Next, 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.
The first 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 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 NY2d 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)]. The Court in an opinion rendered in 1999 reiterated its view of §50-a, citing that decision and stating that: "...we recognized that the decisive factor in determining whether an officer's personnel record was exempted from FOIL disclosure under Civil Rights Law § 50-a was the potential use of the information contained therein, not the specific purpose of the particular individual requesting access, nor whether the request was actually made in contemplation of litigation.
'Documents pertaining to misconduct or rules violations by corrections officers which could well be used in various ways against the officers are the very sort of record which *** was intended to be kept confidential. *** The legislative purpose underlying section 50-a *** was *** to protect the officers from the use of records *** as a means for harassment and reprisals and for the purpose of cross-examination' (73 NY2d, at 31 [emphasis supplied])" (Daily Gazette v. City of Schenectady, 93 NY2d 145, 156- 157 (1999)].
To acquire the records that fall within the coverage of §50-a, there must be a court order issued in accordance with other provisions in that statute that state that:
"2. Prior to issuing such court order the judge must review all such requests and give interested parties the opportunity to be heard. No such order shall issue without a clear showing of facts sufficient to warrant the judge to request records for review.
3. If, after such hearing, the judge concludes there is a sufficient basis he shall sign an order requiring that the personnel records in question be sealed and sent directly to him. He shall then review the file and make a determination as to whether the records are relevant and material in the action before him. Upon such a finding the court shall make those parts of the record found to be relevant and material available to the persons so requesting."
Based on the language of §50-a of the Civil Rights Law, various aspects of a personnel file pertaining to a police officer are exempt from disclosure, such as evaluations of performance, complaints and related records pertaining to allegations of misconduct. However, other aspects of a personnel file, i.e., those portions that are not used "to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion", would not be subject to that statute. For instance, an initial application for employment would be not be used for a purpose envisioned by §50-a and, therefore, rights of access would be governed by the Freedom of Information Law.
If the employment application of the officer in question can be found, most relevant in my opinion would be §87(2)(b), which states that an agency may withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Based on the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law, 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 those individuals are required to be more accountable than others. The courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of the official duties of a public officer or employee 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 items relating to public officers or employees are irrelevant to the performance of their 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, dealing with membership in a union; Minerva v. Village of Valley Stream, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., May 20, 1981, involving the back of a check payable to a municipal attorney that could indicate how that person spends his/her money; Selig v. Sielaff, 200 AD 2d 298 (1994), concerning disclosure of social security numbers].
In conjunction with the foregoing, I note that it has been held by the Appellate Division that disclosure of a public employee's educational background would not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and must be disclosed [see Ruberti, Girvin & Ferlazzo v. NYS Division of State Police, 641 NYS 2d 411, 218 AD 2d 494 (1996)].
Additionally, in the lower court decision rendered in Kwasnik v. City of New York (Supreme Court, New York County, September 26, 1997), the court cited and relied upon an opinion rendered by this office and held that those portions of resumes, including information detailing one's public employment, must be disclosed. The Court quoted from the Committee's opinion, which stated that:
"If, for example, an individual must have certain types of experience, educational accomplishments or certifications as a condition precedent to serving in [a] particular position, those aspects of a resume or application would in my view be relevant to the performance of the official duties of not only the individual to whom the record pertains, but also the appointing agency or officers ... to the extent that records sought contain information pertaining to the requirements that must have been met to hold the position, they should be disclosed, for I believe that disclosure of those aspects of documents would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion [of] personal privacy. Disclosure represents the only means by which the public can be aware of whether the incumbent of the position has met the requisite criteria for serving in that position.
In quoting from the opinion, the court also concurred with the following:
"Although some aspects of one's employment history may be withheld, the fact of a person's public employment is a matter of public record, for records identifying public employees, their titles and salaries must be prepared and made available under the Freedom of Information Law [see §87(3)(b)]."
Items within an application for employment or a resume that may be withheld in my view would include social security numbers, marital status, home addresses, hobbies, and other details of one's life that are unrelated to the position for which he or she was hired.
In affirming the decision of the Supreme Court, the Appellate Division found that:
"This result is supported by opinions of the Committee on Open Government, to which courts should defer (see, Miracle Mile Assocs. v. Yudelson, 68 AD2d 176, 181, lv denied 48 NY2d 706), favoring disclosure of public employees' resumes if only because public employment is, by dint of FOIL itself, a matter of public record (FOIL-AO-4010; FOIL-AO-7065; Public Officers Law §87[b]). The dates of attendance at academic institutions should also be subject to disclosure, at least where, as here, the employee did not meet the licensing requirement for employment when hired and therefore had to have worked a minimum number of years in the field in order to have qualified for the job. In such circumstances, the agency's need for the information would be great and the personal hardship of disclosure small (see, Public Officers Law §89[b][iv]) [262 AD2d 171, (1999]."
In short, portions of a resume or employment application that relate in some manner to the performance of a public employee's duties are generally accessible; other aspects of those records that are irrelevant may be withheld.
I hope that the foregoing serves to enhance your understanding of the matter and that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Linda K. Banach
Sherri L. Shoff