August 21, 2002
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 of August 7 and the materials attached to it. You have sought an advisory opinion in your capacity as attorney for the Town of Caroline concerning the status of a volunteer ambulance corporation under the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws.
By way of background, you wrote that:
"The town has three fire districts which cover most, but not all of the town. For many years ambulance service was provided to the town by the Slaterville Volunteer Fire Co. Inc. Slaterville Volunteer Fire Co., Inc. is the fire department which provides fire protection to the Slaterville Fire District. The other two fire districts do not provide ambulance service.
"In 2001 the members of Slaterville Volunteer Fire Co., Inc. formed Slaterville Ambulance, Inc. under the not-for-profit corporation law. Members of Slaterville Volunteer Fire Co., Inc. are also members of Slaterville Ambulance, Inc. Slaterville Ambulance, Inc. does not contract with any other municipality or fire district to provide ambulance service. I believe that the vast majority of their funding comes from the contract with Town."
In this regard, the Freedom of Information Law is applicable to agency records, and §86(3) defines the term "agency" to mean:
"any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature."
Based on the foregoing, the Freedom of Information Law generally pertains to records maintained by entities of state and local governments.
However, in Westchester-Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball [50 NY2d 575 (1980)], a case involving access to records relating to a lottery conducted by a volunteer fire company, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court found that volunteer fire companies, despite their status as not- for-profit corporations, are "agencies" subject to the Freedom of Information Law. In so holding, the Court stated that:
"We begin by rejecting respondent's contention that, in applying the Freedom of Information Law, a distinction is to be made between a volunteer organization on which a local government relies for performance of an essential public service, as is true of the fire department here, and on the other hand, an organic arm of government, when that is the channel through which such services are delivered. Key is the Legislature's own unmistakably broad declaration that, '[a]s state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' (emphasis added; Public Officers Law, §84).
"True, the Legislature, in separately delineating the powers and duties of volunteer fire departments, for example, has nowhere included an obligation comparable to that spelled out in the Freedom of Information statute (see Village Law, art 10; see, also, 39 NY Jur, Municipal Corporations, §§560-588). But, absent a provision exempting volunteer fire departments from the reach of article 6-and there is none-we attach no significance to the fact that these or other particular agencies, regular or volunteer, are not expressly included. For the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such objections cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to bring them about permeate the body politic to a point where they become the rule rather than the exception. The phrase 'public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' therefore merely punctuates with explicitness what in any event is implicit" (id. at 579].
Moreover, although it was contended that documents concerning the lottery were not subject to the Freedom of Information Law because they did not pertain to the performance of the company's fire fighting duties, the Court held that the documents constituted "records" subject to the Freedom of Information Law [see §86(4)].
Another decision confirmed in an expansive manner that volunteer fire companies are required to comply with the Freedom of Information Law. That decision, S.W. Pitts Hose Company et al. v. Capital Newspapers (Supreme Court, Albany County, January 25, 1988), dealt with the issue in terms of government control over volunteer fire companies. In its analysis, the Court states that:
"Section 1402 of the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law is directly applicable to the plaintiffs and pertains to how volunteer fire companies are organized. Section 1402(e) provides:
'...a fire corporation, hereafter incorporated under this section shall be under the control of the city, village, fire district or town authorities having by law, control over the prevention or extinguishment of fires therein. Such authorities may adopt rules and regulations for the government and control of such corporations.'
"These fire companies are formed by consent of the Colonie Town Board. The Town has control over the membership of the companies, as well as many other aspects of their structure, organization and operation (section 1402). The plaintiffs' contention that their relationship with the Town of Colonie is solely contractual is a mischaracterization. The municipality clearly has, by law, control over these volunteer organizations which reprovide a public function.
"It should be further noted that the Legislature, in enacting FOIL, intended that it apply in the broadest possible terms. '...[I]t is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' (Public Officers Law, section 84).
"This court recognizes the long, distinguished history of volunteer fire companies in New York State, and the vital services they provide to many municipalities. But not to be ignored is that their existence is inextricably linked to, dependent on, and under the control of the municipalities for which they provide an essential public service."
In consideration of the foregoing, it is clear that volunteer fire companies are subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
In the only case of which I am aware on the subject, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that a volunteer ambulance corporation performing its duties for an ambulance district is subject to the Freedom of Information Law. In so holding, the decision stated that:
"The Court of Appeals has rejected any distinction between a volunteer organization on which a local government relies for the performance of an essential public service and an organic arm of government (see, Matter of Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 N.Y.2d 575, 579, 430 N.Y.S.2d 574, 408 N.E.2d 904).
"The appellant performs a governmental function, and it performs that function solely for the Mastic Ambulance District, a municipal entity and a municipal subdivision of the Town of Brookhaven (hereinafter the Town). The appellant submits a budget to and receives all of its funding from the Town, and the allocation of its funds is scrutinized by the Town. Thus, the appellant clearly falls within the definition of an agency and is subject to the requirements of FOIL" [Ryan v. Mastic Ambulance Company, 212 AD 2d 716, 622 NYS 2d 795, 796 (1995)].
It is emphasized that the decision cited above pertained to an ambulance company performing its duties for an ambulance district, which is itself a public corporation. Although there appears to be no ambulance district in this instance, critical in my view is that Slaterville Ambulance, Inc. was formed by the volunteer fire company, which is clearly an agency, and that the members of the two entities are the same. In consideration of those factors, I believe that the entity in question would be found to constitute an "agency" or, in the alternative, that its records would fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law.
As you may be aware, that statute defines the term "record" expansively to mean:
"...any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."
Since the fire company is the corporate parent of the ambulance corporation, and particularly if the offices of the two corporations are in the same premises, their leadership and members are the same or overlap, and their records are overseen, used and administered by the same persons, it would appear that the records are kept by or for the fire company and, therefore, fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. In short, the ambulance corporation does not appear to stand alone, but rather is analogous to a subsidiary of the fire company.
Next, the Open Meetings Law pertains to meetings of public bodies, and §102(2) of that statute defines the phrase "public body" to mean:
"...any entity for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business and which consists of two or more members, performing a governmental function for the state or for an agency or department thereof, or for a public corporation as defined in section sixty-six of the general construction law, or committee or subcommittee or other similar body of such public body."
While there is no judicial decision of which I am aware dealing with the status of the governing body of an ambulance corporation, the entity at issue appears to be subject to the Open Meetings Law. If, like the fire company, the ambulance company performs its functions exclusively for a municipality, I believe that it would be found that it conducts public business and performs a governmental function for a municipality and that, therefore, the meetings of its governing body would be subject to the Open Meetings Law.
Lastly, it has consistently been advised that portions of records identifiable to those in receipt of emergency services provided by a fire or ambulance company may be withheld.
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. Further, the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the grounds for denial that follow. The phrase quoted in the preceding sentence indicates that a single record or report may contain both accessible and deniable information. Moreover, that phrase in my opinion imposes an obligation upon agencies to review requested records in their entirety to determine which portions, if any, may justifiably be withheld.
Relevant is §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law, which states that an agency may withhold records or portions thereof that:
"if disclosed would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy under the provision of subdivision two of section eighty-nine of this article..."
In addition, §89(2)(b) lists a series of examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy, the first two of which pertain to:
"i. disclosure of employment, medical or credit histories or personal references or applicants for employment;
ii. disclosure of items involving the medical or personal records of a client or patient in a medical facility..."
From my perspective, a record of a medical emergency call consists in part of what might be characterized as a medical record or history relating to the person needing care or services [see Hanig v. NYS Department of Motor Vehicles, 79 NY2d 106 (1992)].
In my opinion, portions of records identifying those to whom medical services were rendered, their ages, and descriptions of their medical problems or conditions could be withheld on the ground that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, for disclosure of a name coupled with those details in my view represents a personal and somewhat intimate aspect of the individual's life. However, I believe that other aspects of the records, such as the locations of calls, should be disclosed. In my view, an emergency call, particularly when sirens or flashing lights are used, is an event of a public nature. When a fire truck or ambulance travels to its destination, that destination is or can be known to those in the vicinity of the event. In essence, I believe that event is of a public nature and that disclosure of a location or a brief description of an event would not likely constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Nevertheless, the personally identifiable details described earlier could in my view be withheld.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Bradley M. Pinsky