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March 30, 2011

Disclosure of the terms of settlement agreements pursuant to a FOIL demand

Disclosure of the terms of settlement agreements pursuant to a FOIL demand

Hansen v Wallkill, App. Div., 2d Department, 270 AD2d 390

Sometimes an individual and an employer decides to terminate the individual’s employment or settle a disciplinary action in accordance with agreed upon terms and conditions. Such an agreement typically contains a “non-disclosure” clause. What happens if the terms of the settlement are made public without the expressed consent of both parties? This was the issue raised in the Hansen case.

Jon Hansen and the Town of Wallkill entered into a settlement agreement that required the Town to make “severance payments” to Hansen. When the town supervisor, Howard Mills, revealed the amount of the severance payments being made to Hansen under the terms of the agreement to the town board, Hansen sued for damages, claiming the disclosure constituted a breach of contract.

Hansen pointed to a clause in the agreement that provided that the terms of the settlement were to remain confidential except as may be required by law or legal process.

Mills, on the other hand, argued that the town board was told the amount of Hansen’s severance pay in response to a question during a regular meeting and that his disclosing this information was required under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).*

The Appellate Division sustained a lower court’s ruling dismissing Hansen’s complaint.

The court said that “[i]t is well settled that FOIL imposes a broad duty of disclosure on government agencies,” citing Section 84 of the Public Officers Law.

In essence, all public records are to be disclosed pursuant to a FOIL demand except:

1. When disclosure is specifically prohibited by law or by a court order; or

2. Where a record falls within an exception which permits the custodian of the record or document, as a matter of the exercise of discretion, to withhold the information and the entity elects to exercise its discetion and withholds it.

The disclosure of the amount of the severance payment, said the court, does not fall within any of the FOIL exceptions. Further, while the town supervisor did not seek court authorization for the disclosure, the agreement did not require prior court authorization to do so.

Suppose the information sought under FOIL concerns a disciplinary settlement. Can a public employer agree to keep the settlement document confidential?

This issue was considered by the Appellate Division in LaRocca v Jericho UFSD, 220 AD2d 424. In LaRocca, the court decided that the terms of a disciplinary settlement were subject to disclosure under FOIL.

The court held that a disciplinary settlement agreement did not constitute an employment history as defined by FOIL and therefore was presumptively available for public inspection. In addition, the court said that “as a matter of public policy, [a public employer] cannot bargain away the public’s right to access to public records.”

The Appellate Division decided that a settlement agreement, or any part of it, providing for confidentiality or denying the public access to the document is unenforceable as against the pubic interest.

The settlement agreement between LaRocca and Jericho, however, contained references to charges that LaRocca denied, or were not admitted, together with the names of other employees. The Appellate Division held that disclosure of those specific portions of the agreement would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy within the meaning of FOIL and thus could be redacted from the document.

* A “FOIL request” is the method used by an individual to inform the custodian of the public record involved that he or she wishes to inspect or copy public records and to identify the particular documents or records of interest.

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