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June 14, 2021

Custodian's reliance on a prohibition in a federal regulation to withhold certain documents within the ambit of the Freedom of Information Law held misplaced

The custodian of certain documents sought pursuant to the New York State Freedom of Information Law [FOIL] denied the access to the documents concerning an accident. The custodian argued that [1] "federal law prohibited [the custodian] from providing the requested documents" and [2] the "law enforcement exemption" applied in this instance.

Petitioner [Plaintiff] then initiated a CPLR Article 78 seeking a court order annulling the agency's decision. Supreme Court granted Plaintiff's application and the agency appealed. The Appellate Division sustained the lower court's ruling.

Conceding that Public Officers Law §87(2)(a) does permit the custodian of records sought pursuant to FOIL to deny access to records if they "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute," the Appellate Division opined out that "no federal statute exists prohibiting [the custodians] from releasing [the] requested documents."

The court explained that although the federal National Transportation Safety Board had promulgated a regulation* that prohibits parties to its investigations "from releasing information obtained during an investigation at any time prior to the [National Transportation Safety Board's] public release of information ... a regulation is not a statute and, therefore, does not fall within the ambit of this narrowly construed exemption," citing Brownstone Publs. v New York City Department of Finance, 150 AD2d 185, leave to appeal denied, 75 NY2d 791.

Addressing the agency's alternative justification for its determination, its withholding the documents demanded pursuant to FOIL's "law enforcement exemption," the Appellate Division noted that Public Officers Law §87(2)(e)(i) exempts from disclosure those records, or portions thereof, that "are compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would . . . interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings."

However, said the court, in order to trigger the law enforcement exemption, the custodian of the record demanded is required to articulate a factual basis "identify[ing] the generic kinds of documents for which the exemption is claimed, and the generic risks posed by disclosure of these categories of documents."

Instead, said the Appellate Division, the agency "in conclusory and speculative fashion, averred that the exemption justified denial of access to the requested records, without providing factual assertions from anyone with personal knowledge demonstrating that the requested records were actually compiled for law enforcement purposes, either generally or specifically, in connection with the investigation of this accident."

* An Overview of Federal Regulations and the Rulemaking Process prepared by the Congressional Research Service is posted on the Internet at https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/IF10003.pdf.

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division's decision.

 

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