March 17, 1997
Hon. Larry G. Mack
Cattaraugus County Legislator
4911 Humphrey Road
Great Valley, NY 14741
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.
Dear Legislator Mack:
I have received your letter of February 15, which reached this office on February 27. You have sought an advisory opinion concerning the propriety of a partial denial of access rendered under the Freedom of Information Law by Cattaraugus County. The information withheld involve a certain public employee and the "certificates of his associates, bachelor and master degrees..."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, 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.
Second, in my view, only one of the grounds for denial is pertinent to the matter. Specifically, §87(2)(b) 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, the information sought should be disclosed. 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].
I note that it was recently held that disclosure of a public employee's educational background would not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see Ruberti, Girvin & Ferlazzo v. NYS Division of State Police, 641 NYS 2d 411, ___ AD 2d ___ (1996)]. Based on that decision, insofar as records maintained by an agency include information reflective of the educational degrees awarded to a public employee, they must be made available.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Donald E. Furman