November 27, 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 correspondence in which you appealed a denial of your request for the City of Buffalo’s assessment roll to this office. The City cited §89(2)(b)(iii) of the Freedom of Information Law as the basis for the denial.
In this regard, first, the Committee on Open Government is authorized to provide advice and opinions concerning the Freedom of Information Law. The Committee is not empowered to determine appeals or compel an agency, such as the City of Buffalo, to grant or deny access to records. The provision pertaining to the right to appeal, §89(4)(a), 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 of the entity, or the person thereof designated by such 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."
As indicated in the response to your request, it is suggested that you appeal to the City’s Corporation Counsel, Alisa A. Lukasiewicz.
Second, with respect to the reason for the denial, 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.
As a general matter, when records are accessible under the Freedom of Information Law, it has been held that they should be made equally available to any person, regardless of one's status, interest or the intended use of the records [see Burke v. Yudelson, 368 NYS 2d 779, aff'd 51 AD 2d 673, 378 NYS 2d 165 (1976)]. Moreover, the Court of Appeals has held that:
"FOIL does not require that the party requesting records make any showing of need, good faith or legitimate purpose; while its purpose may be to shed light on government decision-making, its ambit is not confined to records actually used in the decision-making process. (Matter of Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581.) Full disclosure by public agencies is, under FOIL, a public right and in the public interest, irrespective of the status or need of the person making the request" [Farbman v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984)].
Farbman pertained to a situation in which a person involved in litigation against an agency requested records from that agency under the Freedom of Information Law. In brief, it was found that one's status as a litigant had no effect upon that person's right as a member of the public when using the Freedom of Information Law, irrespective of the intended use of the records. Similarly, unless there is a basis for withholding records in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2), the use of the records, including the potential for commercial use or fund-raising, is in my opinion irrelevant; when records are accessible, once they are disclosed, the recipient may do with the records as he or she sees fit.
The only aspect of the Freedom of Information Law that involves the ability to deny access based on the intended use of the records, 89(2)(b)(iii), represents what might be viewed as an internal conflict in the law. As indicated above, the status of an applicant or the purposes for which a request is made are irrelevant to rights of access, and an agency cannot inquire as to the intended use of records. The cited provision states that an agency may withhold records when disclosure would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”, and that an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy includes the “sale or release of lists of names and addresses if such lists would be used for commercial or fund-raising purposes.” Due to the language of §89(2)(b)(iii), rights of access to a list of names and addresses, or equivalent records, may be contingent upon the purpose for which a request is made [see Scott, Sardano & Pomeranz v. Records Access Officer of Syracuse, 65 NY 2d 294, 491 NYS 2d 289 (1985); Federation of New York State Rifle and Pistol Clubs, Inc. v. New York City Police Dept., 73 NY 2d 92 (1989); Goodstein v. Shaw, 463 NYS 2d 162 (1983)]. However, for reasons to be considered in detail, §89(2)(b)(iii) is, according to judicial decisions, inapplicable with respect to a request for an assessment roll.
Long before the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, it was established by the courts that records pertaining to the assessment of real property are generally available [see e.g., Sears Roebuck & Co. v. Hoyt, 107 NYS 2d 756 (1951); Sanchez v. Papontas, 32 AD 2d 948 (1969), including assessment rolls. Moreover, even though the Freedom of Information Law authorizes an agency to withhold a list of names and addresses if the list is requested for commercial or fund-raising purposes, in a decision rendered more than twenty years ago, it was held that assessment rolls are accessible even though the request was made for a commercial purpose.
Section 89(6) of the Freedom of Information Law provides that records available under a different provision of law remain available, notwithstanding the grounds for denial of access appearing in the Freedom of Information Law. In Szikszay v. Buelow [436 NYS 2d 558 (1981)],the court found that assessment rolls or equivalent records are public records and were public before the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law. Specifically, it was found that:
"An assessment roll is a public record (Real Property Tax Law [section] 516 subd. 2; General Municipal Law [section] 51; County Law [section] 208 subd. 4). It must contain the name and mailing or billing address of the owner of the parcel (Real Property Tax Law [sections] 502, 504, 9 NYCRR [section] 190-1(6)(1)). Such records are open to public inspection and copying except as otherwise provided by law (General Municipal Law [section] 51; County Law [section] 208 subd. 4). Even prior to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, and under its predecessor, Public Officers Law [section] 66, repealed L.1974, c. 578, assessment rolls and related records were treated as public records, open to public inspection and copying (Sanchez v. Papontas, 32 A.D.2d 948, 303 N.Y.S.2d 711, Sears Roebuck & Co. v. Hoyt, 202 Misc. 43, 107 N.Y.S.2d 756; Ops. State Comptroller 1967, p. 596)" (id. at 562, 563).
In consideration of the issue of privacy and citing the provision dealing with lists of names and addresses, it was held that:
"The Freedom of Information Law limits access to records where disclosure would constitute 'an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy' (Public Officers Law [section] 87 subd. 2(b), [section] 89 subd. 2(b)iii). In view of the history of public access to assessment records, and the continued availability of such records to public inspection, whatever invasion of privacy may result by providing copies of A.R.L.M. computer tapes to petitioner would appear to be permissible rather than 'unwarranted' (cf. Advisory Opns. of Committee on Public Access to Records, June 12, 1979, FOIL-AO-1164). In addition, considering the legislative purpose behind the Freedom of Information Law, it would be anomalous to permit the statute to be used as a shield by government to prevent disclosure. In this regard, Public Officers Law [section] 89 subd. 5 specifically provides: 'Nothing in this article shall be construed to limit or abridge any otherwise available right of access at law or in equity of any party to records.'" [id. at 563; now section 89(6)].
The court stated further that:
"...the records in question can be viewed by any person and presumably copies of portions obtained, simply by walking into the appropriate county, city, or town office. It appears that petitioner could obtain the information he seeks if he wanted to spend the time to go through the records manually and copy the necessary information. Therefore, the balancing of interests, otherwise required, between the right of individual privacy on the one hand and the public interest in dissemination of information on the other...need not be undertaken...
"Assessment records are public information pursuant to other provisions of law and have been for sometime. The form of the records and petitioner' s purpose in seeking them do not alter their public character or petitioner's concomitant right to inspect and copy" (id.).
Based upon the foregoing, I believe that an assessment roll or its equivalent must be disclosed, irrespective of the intended use of that record. I point out that the same conclusion was reached by Supreme Court in Nassau County in an unreported decision [Real Estate Data, Inc. v. County of Nassau, Supreme Court, Nassau County, September 18, 1981].
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, copies of this response will be sent to City officials.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Bruna Michaux, Commissioner
Alisa A. Lukasiewicz, Corporation Counsel