July 28, 2005
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 and apologize for the delay in response. You referred to a request to the Department of Health’s Fatality Assessment Control Unit (FACE) for the names of "the deceased workers whose deaths on the job FACE is investigating." Although you contend that the identities of those persons should be disclosed, the request was denied. You added that you want to obtain the names in order to "advise their surviving family members of their rights to file claims for workers compensation and other benefits such as Crime Victims Compensation." You have asked whether "the privacy laws apply to the deceased."
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. Section 87(2)(b) authorizes an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Additionally, §89(2)(b) includes a series of examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy.
The Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, recently dealt with issues involving the privacy of the deceased and their surviving family members for the first time in New York Times Company v. City of New York Fire Department (March 24, 2005; ___NY3d___). The records in question involved 911 tape recordings of persons who died during the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the decision states that:
"We first reject the argument, advanced by the parties seeking disclosure here, that no privacy interest exists in the feelings and experiences of people no longer living. The privacy exception, it is argued, does not protect the dead, and their survivors cannot claim ‘privacy’ for experiences and feelings that are not their own. We think this argument contradicts the common understanding of the word ‘privacy’."
"Almost everyone, surely, wants to keep from public view some aspects not only of his or her own life, but of the lives of loved ones who have died. It is normal to be appalled if intimate moments in the life of one’s deceased child, wife, husband or other close relative become publicly known, and an object of idle curiosity or a source of titillation. The desire to preserve the dignity of human existence even when life has passed is the sort of interest to which legal protection is given under the name of privacy. We thus hold that surviving relatives have an interest protected by FOIL in keeping private affairs of the dead (cf. Nat’l Archives and Records Admin. V. Favish, 541 US 157 )."
Based on the foregoing, it is clear that there may be an interest in protecting privacy in consideration of the deceased, as well as their family members. Nevertheless, the ensuing question involves the content of records, and whether the information is so intimate or personal that disclosure would result in an "unwarranted" invasion of privacy. As stated by the Court:
"The recognition that surviving relatives have a legally protected privacy interest, however, is only the beginning of the inquiry. We must decide whether disclosure of the tapes and transcripts of the 911 calls would injure that interest, or the comparable interest of people who called 911 and survived, and whether the injury to privacy would be ‘unwarranted’ within the meaning of FOIL’s exception."
In its focus on the nature of the calls, it was found that:
"The privacy interests in this case are compelling. The 911 calls at issue undoubtedly contain, in many cases, the words of people confronted, without warning, with the prospect of imminent death. Those words are likely to include expressions of the terror and agony the callers felt and of their deepest feelings about what their lives and their families meant to them. The grieving family of such a caller – or the caller, if he or she survived – might reasonably be deeply offended at the idea that these words could be heard on television or read in the New York Times.
"We do not imply that there is a privacy interest of comparable strength in all tapes and transcripts of calls made to 911. Two factors make the September 11 911 calls different.
"First, while some other 911 callers may be in as desperate straits as those who called on September 11, many are not. Secondly, the September 11 callers were part of an event that has received and will continue to receive enormous - - perhaps literally unequalled - - public attention. Many millions of people have reacted, and will react, to the callers’ fate with horrified fascination. Thus it is highly likely in this case - - more than in almost any other imaginable - - that, if the tapes and transcripts are made public, the will be replayed and republished endlessly, and that in some cases they will be exploited by media seeking to deliver sensational fare to their audience. This is the sort of invasion that the privacy exception exists to prevent."
As I view the direction offered by the Court of Appeals, the extent to which the contents of records are indeed intimate and personal is the key factor in ascertaining whether disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. From my perspective, the fact of a death is itself not intimate and, therefore, I believe that the Department is required to disclose the names of its former employees whose deaths are being investigated by FACE. This is not intended to suggest that details relating to their deaths must be disclosed, but rather that their identities must be disclosed.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, I point out that §89(7) of the Freedom of Information Law specifies that nothing in that statute
"shall require the disclosure of the home address of an officer or employee, former officer or employee, or of a retiree of a public employees’ retirement system; nor shall anything in this article require the disclosure of the name or address of a beneficiary of a public employees’ retirement system..."
Based on the provision quoted above, the home addresses of deceased employees and the names and addresses of their surviving beneficiaries need not be disclosed. I note, too, that §89(2)(b)(iii) states that an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy includes "sale or release of lists of names and addresses if such lists would be used for commercial or fund-raising purposes."
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Robert LoCicero, Records Access Officer
Fatality Assessment and Control Unit