June 10, 2021

Records of a private entity created for the benefit of a public entity may constitute public records subject to FOIL under certain circumstances

Article 6 of the Public Officers Law, commonly referred to as the "Freedom of Information Law [FOIL], requires that an entity subject to its provisions make available for public inspection and copying all its records unless the requested records are statutorily exempt from disclosure. FOIL, however, does not require an entity "to prepare any record not possessed or maintained by such entity" and an entity "may deny a FOIL request upon providing certification that it does not have possession of the requested record or, following a diligent search, that the record cannot be found."

Plaintiff in the CPLR Article 78 action had filed a FOIL request with a public entity [Respondent] seeking various records concerning various apprenticeship training programs sponsored by a union local's [Union] "Joint Apprenticeship Training Fund" for a particular period of time. Respondent granted Plaintiff's request to the extent that it disclosed 425 pages of records within its possession but denied Plaintiff's request for certain records and for "[any] and all documents used or provided to enrollees in each of the programs for training or any other classroom activities related to training."

Plaintiff administratively appealed. Respondent's FOIL appeal officer issued a final determination finding, among other things, that the denial of certain was proper on the ground that Respondent did not maintain those documents. Plaintiff then commenced the instant Article 78 proceeding seeking a court order annulling Respondent's determination. 

Supreme Court partially granted Plaintiff's petition in part, annulling that part of the agency determination as denied Plaintiff's request with respect to certain documents, holsinf that they were subject to disclosure, and Respondent appealed.

The Appellate Division observed that:

1. It is the public policy of this state to develop sound apprenticeship training standards and to encourage industry and labor to institute apprenticeship training programs in order to develop skilled crafts people in New York State's labor force;

2. The Commissioner of Labor [Labor] is responsible for supervising these apprenticeship programs and has established and implemented procedures and standards for the approval and registration of such programs;

3. Pursuant thereto Labor procedures, private entities interested in providing apprenticeship programs[Sponsors] are required to, among other things, register with respondent, "keep adequate records relative to all phases of the operation of the program, including but not limited to job assignments, promotion, demotion, lay-off or termination, rates of pay or other form of compensation or conditions of work, and any other records pertinent to a determination of compliance with the relevant State law and 12 NYCRR.

4. A Sponsor must also submit such records "as may be required by 12 NYCRR 601.5[c][19]".

Addressing the Respondent's argument that the records sought by Plaintiff were created and maintained by the Union in order for it to demonstrate its compliance with Labor Law Article 23 and Respondent's corresponding regulations, the Appellate Division concluded that the question "distills to whether records that are maintained by a private entity for purposes of demonstrating regulatory compliance constitute records held 'for an agency' so as to be subject to disclosure under FOIL."

The Appellate Division opined that "where a state agency delegates a duty to perform an essential service to a private, third-party entity for the agency's benefit," the documents in the possession of the private entity for those purposes are considered to be "kept or held" for the agency and subject to disclosure under FOIL. 

In contrast, observed the court, where a public entity did not delegate such a duty to a private entity nor did the private entity perform any essential service on public entity's behalf, "the mere fact that[the public entity] has the discretionary regulatory authority to ask the [private entity] for the requested documents does not, ipso facto, render all documents that are created and maintained by the [private entity] subject to disclosure" pursuant to FOIL. 

Indeed, opined the Appellate Division, "... to so hold would render any document that was created or maintained by a private entity in order to comply with a corresponding agency regulation requiring the production and retention thereof a 'record' subject to disclosure under FOIL."

Recognizing that "FOIL is to be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly interpreted so that the public is granted maximum access to the records of government," in this instance the Appellate Division said it did not find "the definition of 'record' to be so broad and all-encompassing as to bring within its ambit any document that a private entity might create and maintain pursuant to a state agency's regulation under the guise that said records are held 'for' that agency" within the meaning of Public Officers Law §§86[4]; 87[2]; 89[3] [a]; Labor Law §§810, 813-a; [or] 12 NYCRR 601.1, 601.8 [c], [or] 601.14."

Accordingly, the Appellate Division held that Supreme Court should not have granted that part of the Plaintiff's petition as sought to require the Respondent to obtain and disclose the requested documents.

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division's decision.

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