Some guidelines to consider in determining the records to be delivered, in whole or in part, in responding to a Freedom of Information Law request
Livson v Town of Greenburgh, 2016 NY Slip Op 05570, Appellate Division, Second Department
In deciding this appeal the Appellate Division set out a number of guidelines of value to both custodians of public records that are being sought pursuant to a Freedom of Information Law [FOIL] request and those seeking the disclosure of public documents.
The genesis of this case was Dorrine Livson’s submission of a FOIL request to the Town of Greenburgh [Town] in her capacity as a representative of a Civic Association seeking the list of the names and email addresses of all persons who “signed-up” to receive updates concerning items posted on the Town's website by email. Referred to as the "gblist," and maintained by a private vendor, Cit-e-Net, gblist subscribers could also elect to discontinue receiving “gblist updates.
The Town denied Livson’s FOIL request, advising her that "[t]here is neither a print or extract function on the software that can reasonably create a list of email addresses."
Subsequently Livson learned that Cit-e-Net could provide the Town with a digital copy of the gblist upon receiving such a request from the Town. She then filed an administrative appeal challenging the denial of her FOIL request by the Town. The Town's Board of Supervisors denied Livson’s appeal and she commenced a CPLR Article 78 proceeding against the Town, the Town Clerk, and the Town Board challenging the Town’s denial of her administrative appeal.
The Supreme Court granted Livson’s petition and directed the Town "to disclose, in electronic form, the names and email addresses of subscribers of the gblist." The court, however, said the gblist could not be reproduced, redistributed or circulated nor could the information of the gblist be used for solicitation, fund-raising or any commercial purpose." The Town appealed Supreme Court’s ruling.
Addressing the Town’s appeal, the Appellate Division noted that:
1. 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."
2. The statutorily stated policy or philosophy underlying FOIL is to promote “[t]he people's right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations."
3. Records held by third parties on behalf of a government agency are "records" which are presumptively subject to disclosure pursuant to a FOIL request and a government agency's not having physical possession of such records is immaterial with respect to honoring such a request.*
4. The agency denying access to the target[s] of a FOIL request has the burden of demonstrating that an exemption, in whole or in part, applies to the information sought by FOIL request.
5. The statutory exemptions from disclosure are to be "narrowly construed" so as to ensure maximum public access to the government documents requested and the agency must demonstrate that the requested material "fall[s] squarely within a FOIL exemption."
In the words of the Appellate Division, "[T]he agency does not have carte blanche to withhold any information it pleases," and it must "articulate particularized and specific justification" for the nondisclosure at issue. "Conclusory assertions that certain records fall within a statutory exemption are not sufficient; evidentiary support is needed."
In addition, the court pointed out that an agency "may deny access to records" where disclosure "would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy under the provisions of Public Officers Law §89(2)(b)] [and] [W]here none of the [enumerated exemptions under Public Officers Law §89(2)(b) are] applicable, a court must decide whether any invasion of privacy . . . is ‘unwarranted’ by balancing the privacy interests at stake against the public interest in disclosure of the information."
In denying the Town’s appeal, the Appellate Division said that it had not articulated the applicability of any enumerated exemptions under Public Officers Law § 89(2)(b), nor did the Town show that the privacy interests at stake outweigh the public interest in disclosure of the information.
In addition, said the court, Livson sought "to further the public discourse on matters of public importance and concern in the Town" by obtaining the names and email addresses of those persons who subscribe to the gblist. Such persons have willingly divulged that information to the Town so that they may receive news and information, in electronic form, on matters of public concern in the Town and are free to delete their name and email address from the gblist.
As to the privacy issue, the Appellate Division pointed out that the Town did not articulate any privacy interest that would be at stake in the disclosure of the gblist and its contention that disclosure of would make gblist subscribers more susceptible to phishing, spamming, and other email scams was speculative. The Appellate Division also pointed out that disclosure of the information on the gblist would not make the gblist subscribers more susceptible to such acts than they ordinarily would be.
As NYPPL has noted in a footnote in a number of earlier summaries of FOIL decisions by the courts, “The release of some public records is limited by statute. i.e., Education Law, §1127 - Confidentiality of records; §33.13, Mental Hygiene Law - Clinical records; confidentiality. Otherwise, submitting a formal FOIL request is not a condition precedent to obtaining public records where access is not barred by statute.
Submitting a formal FOIL request becomes necessary only in the event the custodian of the public record[s] sought declines to “voluntarily” provide the information or record[s] requested. In such cases the individual or organization must file a formal FOIL request in order to seek to obtain the information.
Also note that there is no bar to providing information pursuant to a FOIL request, or otherwise, that falls within one or more of the statutory exceptions that the custodian could rely upon in denying a FOIL request, in whole or in part, applicable to the information or records demanded.” As the Court of Appeals opined in Capital Newspapers v Burns, 67 N.Y.2d 562, “while an agency is permitted to restrict access to those records falling within the statutory exemptions, the language of the exemption provision contains permissive rather than mandatory language, and it is within the agency's discretion to disclose such records, with or without identifying details, if it so chooses.”
* Public Officers Law §87.5(b), addressing access to agency records, provides: 5(b) No agency shall enter into or renew a contract for the creation or maintenance of records if such contract impairs the right of the public to inspect or copy the agency's records.
The decision is posted on the Internet at: