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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The custodian of a public record must articulate particularized and specific justification for denying access to a record requested pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law



The custodian of a public record must articulate particularized and specific justification for denying access to a record requested pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law
Villalobos v New York City Fire Dept., 2015 NY Slip Op 06249, Appellate Division, Second Department

Amaury Villalobos filed a Freedom of Information Law [FOIL] request seeking certain documents in the custody of the New York City Fire Department. Among the material demanded by Villalobos were documents containing the residence address of certain individuals. After an in camera review of the documents demanded, Supreme Court directed the New York City Fire Department to provide Villalobos with “legible unredacted copies of all documents inspected by the court in camera” which would documents would then include the residence address of the individuals.

The Fire Department appealed the Supreme Court ruling and the Appellate Division deleted that portion of Supreme Court’s order that, in effect, directed the Department to provide the Villalobos with residence addresses contained in the documents inspected by the court in camera.

The Appellate Division explained that under FOIL, government records are "presumptively open" for public inspection and copying, unless they fall within an enumerated statutory exemption* set out in Public Officers Law §87(2). However, said the court, “exemptions are to be ‘narrowly construed’ so as to ensure maximum public access … and the burden rests on the agency to demonstrate that the requested material in fact qualifies for exemption.” To meet this burden, said the court, the agency must "articulate particularized and specific justification" for the nondisclosure at issue.”

In this instance the Appellate Division concluded that the Fire Department “failed to articulate a particularized and specific justification for any of the redacted information at issue, except for the residence addresses contained in the subject documents.” The court opined that the Department’s “conclusory assertions” that the redacted information, other than residence addresses, fell within a statutory exemption were insufficient to meet its burden of demonstrating that the requested information was exempt from disclosure.

As to the disclosure of the residence addresses contained in the documents, the court ruled that such disclosure “would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy … since, under the circumstances of this case, the privacy interests at stake outweigh the public interest in disclosure of that information.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division modified the Supreme Court’s judgment so as to permit redaction of the residence addresses contained in the documents at issue.

* The release of some public records is limited by a statute such as Education Law, §1127 - Confidentiality of records or §33.13, Mental Hygiene Law - Clinical records; confidentiality. However, it should also be noted that there is no statutory bar to the custodian of the public record providing documents pursuant to a FOIL request, or otherwise, that falls within one or more of the exceptions that the custodian could rely upon in denying a FOIL request, in whole or in part.

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