Standards used by courts in evaluating the denial of a Freedom of Information request for public records
Hearst Corp. v New York State Police, 2015 NY Slip Op 07729, Appellate Division, Third Department
The Hearst Corporation, publisher the Albany Times Union and one of its reporters, Brendon Lyons, [Hearst] submitted a request to the NYS Division of State Police [DSP] pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law [FOIL] for the disclosure of all records relating to an alleged hit-and-run incident committed by an off-duty State Trooper.
DSP denied the request and after Hearst had exhausted its administrative remedies it filed a CPLR Article 78 proceeding seeking a judgment directing DSP to turn over the requested records, as well as costs and counsel fees.
Following the resolution of some procedural issues Supreme Court held a hearing at which DSP’s FOIL officer, by affidavit, set out the categories of records pertaining to the alleged incident, all of which, according to him, were collected or produced in an internal investigation by DSP pursuant to 9 NYCRR 479, Disciplinary Action.
Supreme Court did not review these records in camera* but found that all of the identified records were exempt from disclosure pursuant to Civil Rights Law §50-a (1) and dismissed the petition on that basis. Hearst appealed the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The Appellate Division set out the following standards regarding a public agency’s response to a FOIL request:
1. "[P]ursuant to FOIL's general mission, which is to promote open government and public accountability, a government agency must make its records available to the public unless an exemption expressly provides otherwise."**
2. "[E]xemptions are to be narrowly interpreted so that the public is granted maximum access to the records of government" and, thus, the party opposing disclosure bears the burden of establishing that the requested information "fall[s] squarely within a statutory exemption."
Noting that Civil Rights Law §50-a (1) exempts from disclosure the "personnel records" of police officers that are "used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion," the Appellate Division rejected Hearst’s contention that information created or collected pursuant to a misconduct investigation is not protected by Civil Rights Law §50-a(1) unless agency can establish that it was thereafter actually relied on in a decision-making process related to the relevant officer's continued employment or promotion and “[p]roof that information was generated for the purpose of assessing an employee's alleged misconduct brings that information within the protection of Civil Rights Law §50-a(1).”
However, the Appellate Division continued, because uncontested evidence established that DSP’s investigation of the Trooper continued after he had resigned as an employee of DSP, the court said it agreed with Hearst that police departments who investigate persons who are no longer their employees are not conducting investigations of "personnel" within the meaning of Civil Rights Law §50-a(1).
The plain meaning of the word personnel identifies individuals with some current employment relationship with an organization, as confirmed by Civil Rights Law §50-a(1) as individuals who are not current employees cannot be considered for either "continued employment or promotion." The Appellate Division found that “Supreme Court erred in finding that [DSP met its burden of establishing that the materials resulting from its investigation after [the Trooper] had resigned were for the purpose of assessing his continued employment or promotion and that, as a result, Civil Rights Law §50-a(1) provided confidentiality to such materials.”
However, said the court, it was unable to address DSP’s alternative arguments for affirmance of the Supreme Court’s granting its motion to dismiss based on “additional exceptions to FOIL respectively apply to some or all of the requested information” as those materials are not within the record for the Appellate Division’s in camera review.
Accordingly, the Appellate Division remitted the matter to Supreme Court for its consideration of such arguments after an in camera review of the materials identified by DSP related to Hearst’sFOIL request.
* The term “in camera” refers to a closed and private session of a court or some other tribunal. As used here, it refers to the review of the documents in question by the court in his or her chambers, the public being excluded from that proceeding.
** An individual is not required to submit a FOIL request as a condition precedent to obtaining public records where access is not barred by statute. A FOIL request is required only in the event the custodian of the public record[s] sought declines to “voluntarily” provide the information or record requested. In such cases the individual or organization is required to file a FOIL request to obtain the information. It should also be noted that there is no bar to providing information 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, for the information or records demanded. Examples of New York statutes barring the release of a public record: Education Law, §1127 - Confidentiality of records and §33.13, Mental Hygiene Law - Clinical records; confidentiality of.
The decision is posted on the Internet at: