June 2, 2020

Processing a Freedom of Information request

In Matter of Abdur-Rashid v New York City Police Dept., 31 NY3d 217, the Court of Appeals, quoting Matter of Fink v Lefkowitz, 47 NY2d 567, said that "To promote open government and public accountability, FOIL* imposes a broad duty on government agencies to make their records available to the public. The statute is based on the policy that the public is vested with an inherent right to know and that official secrecy is anathematic to our form of government'." 

In the instant action Plaintiff-Appellant's [Plaintiff] FOIL request asked the New York City Department of Education's [DOE] for copies of forms used by its employees' to request approval to be absent from work for religious observances in cases where the request was denied during a specified period of time. DOE denied Plaintiff's request on the ground that the requested records were not described so as to enable it, with reasonable effort, to conduct a search to locate and identify them.** This decision was sustained administrative appeal.

Plaintiff then initiated a CPLR Article 78 action seeking a court order compelling DOE (1) to produce such records pursuant to FOIL and (2) for an award of attorney's fees and litigation costs. Supreme Court denied the petition and, in effect, dismissed the proceeding, which ruling the Plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Division.

The Appellate Division explained that FOIL requires that documents requested be "reasonably described" in order to enable the agency to locate the records in question." With respect to DOE's denial of Plaintiff's request on the ground that the requested records were not reasonably described, the court opined that DOE conceded that it would be able to locate the requested records as they "are maintained at the schools where the relevant employees are currently or were last assigned."

Considering the fact that DOE "knows where the requested records are located," the Appellate Division rejected DOE's claim that it would be burdensome for it to conduct a search of the personnel files at each of its 1,700 schools to produce the requested records. In particular the court noted that FOIL provides that the "agency shall not deny a request on the basis that the request is voluminous or that locating or reviewing the requested records or providing the requested copies is burdensome because the agency lacks sufficient staffing or on any other basis if the agency may engage an outside professional service to provide copying, programming or other services required to provide the copy, the costs of which the agency may recover pursuant to paragraph (c) of subdivision one of section eighty-seven of this article."

However, the issue of "burdensome" for DOE to produce the requested records and, or, whether DOE is able to engage an outside professional service to cull the records sought was not addressed by the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division said it could not resolve this issue "on this record" as, among other things:

1. It is unclear as to how much time would be involved for an employee at each school to review the relevant files; and 

2. Although Plaintiff has expressed its willingness to reimburse DOE for reasonable costs involved in having DOE's employees, or an appropriate third party, review and copy the relevant DOE's records, there is no information in the record as to what that cost would be or whether the Plaintiff would, in fact, be willing to reimburse DOE for the full amount of those costs, once those costs are determined.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division vacated the Supreme Court's judgment, reinstate the petition, and remit the matter to the lower court "further proceedings, including additional submissions by the parties, and a new determination of the petition." 

As the petition remains undetermined, the Appellate Division also ruled that Plaintiff's request for an award of attorney's fees and litigation costs was premature.

* Public Officers Law Article 6 [see generally POL §84]

** DOE explained that the requested records were "not coded or stored electronically"  and in order to locate and identify the requested records, more than 100,000 individual personnel files would have to be searched. 

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

CAUTION

Subsequent court and administrative rulings, or changes to laws, rules and regulations may have modified or clarified or vacated or reversed the decisions summarized here. Accordingly, these summaries should be Shepardized® or otherwise checked to make certain that the most recent information is being considered by the reader.
THE MATERIAL ON THIS WEBSITE IS FOR INFORMATION ONLY. AGAIN, CHANGES IN LAWS, RULES, REGULATIONS AND NEW COURT AND ADMINISTRATIVE DECISIONS MAY AFFECT THE ACCURACY OF THE INFORMATION PROVIDED IN THIS LAWBLOG. THE MATERIAL PRESENTED IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE AND THE USE OF ANY MATERIAL POSTED ON THIS WEBSITE DOES NOT CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP.
Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material in this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor members of the staff are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is advised to seek such advice from a competent professional.