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Monday, October 07, 2013

Disclosure of public records pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law


Disclosure of public records pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law
Cook v Nassau County Police Dept., 2013 NY Slip Op 06364, Appellate Division, Second Department

An individual submitted a Freedom of Information [FOIL] request for certain “records” that were held in the police department’s files. The custodian of the records declined to disclose certain documents sought by the individual.

The individual filed a petition pursuant to CPLR Article 78 seeking those records that had been withheld and Supreme Court ruled that some of the records sought by the individual were to be disclosed and others could be withheld by the custodian of the records.

The individual appealed that branch of his petition that Supreme Court denied while the police department cross-appeal from so much of the same judgment, that, in effect, granted those branches of the petition which were to direct it to disclose certain letters, redacted email messages, and a redacted one-page record from an internal affairs investigation.

The Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision, noting that “The Freedom of Information Law … was enacted "to promote open government and public accountability" and "imposes a broad duty on government to make its records available to the public," citing Gould v New York City Police Dept., 89 NY2d 267.

The court explained that FOIL provides that government records are presumptively open for public inspection unless they fall within one of the exceptions specified by Public Officers Law §87(2), which permits an agency to deny access to records which "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute."

One such statute, said the Appellate Division, exempting records from disclosure is Civil Rights Law §50-a(1),* which provides, in relevant part, that "[a]ll personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion" of police officers "shall be considered confidential and not subject to inspection or review." However, "when access to an officer's personnel records relevant to promotion or continued employment is sought under FOIL, nondisclosure will be limited to the extent reasonably necessary to effectuate the purposes of Civil Rights Law §50-a to prevent the potential use of information in the records in litigation to degrade, embarrass, harass or impeach the integrity of the officer."

In this instance the court found that Supreme Court properly determined, after an in camera inspection,** that the only portion of an internal affairs investigation report which should be disclosed pursuant to FOIL was a redacted one-page "Citizen Complaint Summary."

The Appellate Division rejected the police department’s argument that that the redacted "Citizen Complaint Summary" also should have been shielded from disclosure pursuant to Civil Rights Law §50-a(1). That portion of the internal investigation report, as redacted, said the court, does not "contain any invidious implications capable facially of harassment or degradation of the officer in a courtroom."

* Other public records, the release of which is limited by statute, include Education Law, §1127 - Confidentiality of records and  §33.13, Mental Hygiene Law - Clinical records; confidentiality].

**  A legal proceeding is in camera when a hearing is held before the judge in his or her private chambers or when the public is excluded from the proceeding.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
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