October 23, 2006
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.
I have received your letter, the materials attached to it, and a video tape of a portion of a meeting of the Auburn City Council. Because we do not have the facilities here to view a videotape, I have not reviewed it. However, on the basis of the other materials, I offer the following comments.
As I understand the matter, you have requested records of or relating to any "complaint filed by a female city department head against a male elected city official during 2005-2006." In response to that request, you were informed that no such record exists. In this regard, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records, and §89(3) states in relevant part that an agency is not required to create a record in response to a request. 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."
Even if the records sought had been prepared, I believe that they could be withheld. One of the grounds for denial of access, §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law, authorizes an agency to withhold records when disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Although the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public employees. It is clear that public employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public employees are required to be more accountable than others. Further, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a public employee's official duties 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 records are irrelevant to the performance of one's 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].
Several of the decisions cited above, for example, Farrell, Sinicropi, Geneva Printing, Scaccia and Powhida, dealt with situations in which determinations indicating the imposition of some sort of disciplinary action pertaining to particular public employees were found to be available. However, 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, according to case law, be withheld, for disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Herald Company v. School District of City of Syracuse, 430 NYS 2d 460 (1980)].
In this instance, as I understand the matter, there was never an admission or finding of misconduct on the part of any "male elected city official during 2005-2006." If that is so, even if such a record had been prepared, I believe that it could be withheld on the ground that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
I hope that the foregoing serves to clarify your understanding and that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman