May 16, 2019

If the custodian of a record demanded pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law refuses to provide the record, the custodian has the burden of showing that an exemption applies


The basic concept underlying the Freedom of Information Law [FOIL] is that all government documents and records, other than those having access specifically limited by statute,* are available to the public.

The custodian of the records or documents requested may elect, but is not required, to withhold those items that otherwise within the ambit of the several exceptions to disclosure permitted by FOIL. In other words, 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.

Citing Matter of Xerox Corp. v Town of Webster, 65 NY2d 131, the Appellate Division sustained a Supreme Court's ruling that a report prepared by an outside consultant for the agency was not shown to be eligible for the "intra-agency materials exemption" permitted by FOIL.

Public Officers Law §87 sets out the "ground rules" for a party accessing government records. Certain records, however, may be exempt from such disclosure including inter-agency or intra-agency materials other than statistical or factual tabulations or data; ii. instructions to staff that affect the public; iii. final agency policy or determinations; and iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the State Comptroller and the federal government.

In this instance the Appellate Division found that the agency failed to establish that it retained its outside consultant "for purposes of preparing the report, a necessary prerequisite for invocation of the intra-agency materials exemption for documents prepared by an outside consultant." In the words of the Appellate Division, " Supreme Court correctly held that [the agency] failed to meet its burden of showing that the intra-agency materials exemption applies, and properly directed [the agency] to produce an unredacted copy of the subject report."

The Appellate Division, however, remanded the matter to Supreme Court for further proceedings, explaining that Supreme Court failed to address the Petitioners' request for an award of reasonable attorneys' fees.

As the Court of Appeals noted in Matter of Madeiros v New York State Educ. Dept., 30 NY3d 67,FOIL "is based on a presumption of access in accordance with the underlying premise that the public is vested with an inherent right to know and that official secrecy is anathematic to our form of government." Further, in a FOIL proceeding, the court shall provide for the agency to pay "reasonable attorney's fees and other litigation costs" reasonably incurred by a plaintiff where "such person has substantially prevailed" and, or, when the agency failed to respond to a request or appeal within the statutory time.

Further, noted the Appellate Division, the attorneys' fees provision of FOIL was amended to provide that the court "shall" award counsel fees where the agency has no basis for denying access to the material sought," and that an award of attorney's fees is intended to "encourage compliance with FOIL and to minimize the burdens of cost and time from bringing a judicial proceeding."**

* Examples of laws prohibiting the release of certain public records pursuant to a FOIL request include Education Law §1127 - Confidentiality of records and §33.13 of the Mental Hygiene Law - Confidentiality of clinical records.

** Chapter 453, Laws of 2017

The decision is posted on the Internet at:


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