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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A FOIL request seeking the names of a public retirement system’s retirees may be denied by the custodian of the records as exempt from disclosure


A FOIL request seeking the names of a public retirement system’s retirees may be denied by the custodian of the records as exempt from disclosure
Empire Ctr. for N.Y. State Policy v New York State Teachers' Retirement Sys., 2013 NY Slip Op 01117, Appellate Division, Third Department

The Empire Center for New York State Policy, [Policy] a nonprofit corporation, operates a website "aimed at educating and informing the general public about government spending."

In 2012, Policy filed a Freedom of Information Law* [Public Officers Law Article 6 (FOIL)] request seeking an updated database containing information pertaining to the Teachers’ Retirement System's [Retirement] retired members. Such request sought the same information that System had provided to Policy in previous years pursuant to FOIL requests, including the name of each retiree.

Retirement furnished most of the requested information, but refused to disclose the names of the retirees to whom the information corresponded, contending that "such information is exempt from disclosure under Public Officers Law §89(7)."

Public Officers Law §89(7), in pertinent part, provides: “Nothing in this article shall require the disclosure of the home address of … a retiree of a public employees' retirement system; nor shall anything in this article require the disclosure of the name or home address of a beneficiary of a public employees' retirement system … provided however, that nothing in this subdivision shall limit or abridge the right of an employee organization, certified or recognized for any collective negotiating unit of an employer pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law, to obtain the name or home address of any … retiree of such employer, if such name or home address is otherwise available under this article.”

Citing the foregoing provisions of law, Policy contended that the plain language of Public Officers Law §89(7) exempts from disclosure only the home address, not the name, of a retiree. Noting that the statute makes a clear distinction between retirees and beneficiaries, Policy further argued that to read the term "beneficiary" to include a "retiree" would both deprive the word "retiree" of its own meaning and render the first clause of the provision superfluous.

Although conceding that “Well-settled principles of statutory construction lend support to the interpretation advanced by Policy,” the Appellate Division said that it was bound by the Court of Appeals' decision in Matter of New York Veteran Police Association. v New York City Police Dept. Art. I Pension Fund (61 NY2d 659 [1983]).

In Veterans Police Association the Court of Appeals interpreted Public Officers Law §89(7) as exempting from disclosure both the names and home addresses of retirees of a public employees' retirement system.
Policy attempts to distinguish its FOIL request from that relevant in Veterans by contending that the Veteran’s FOIL request was for both the names and the addresses of the retirees, whereas its request here was for the names only.

The Appellate Division ruled that the Retirement System properly denied Policy's FOIL request for the names of its retired members, noting that the First Department, relying on Veterans, reached this same conclusion in addressing a similar FOIL request by Policy for the names of the retirees of the New York City Police Pension Fund (see Empire Ctr. for N.Y. State Policy v New York City Police Pension Fund, 88 AD3d 520, 521 [2011], lv dismissed, 18 NY3d 901 [2012]).

* The basic concept underlying FOIL is that all government documents and records, other than those having access specifically limited by statute [see, for example, Education Law, §1127 - Confidentiality of records and §33.13, Mental Hygiene Law - Clinical records; confidentiality], are available to the public. The custodian of the records or documents requested may elect, but is not required, to withhold those items that are otherwise properly within the ambit of the several exceptions to disclosure permitted by FOIL.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2013/2013_01117.htm


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