July 27, 2021

Elements considered in a court review of the denial of certain records demanded pursuant to the Freedom of Information

The Agency [Custodian] of certain records demanded in a Freedom of Information Law [FOIL] request appealed a Supreme Court judgment that, among other things, directed the Custodian to disclose certain documents to petitioner [Plaintiff].

The Appellate Division "unanimously modified on the law" the Supreme Court's judgment with respect to certain pages identified by "Bates stamp"* and certain emails attached to certain pages of documents that were otherwise subject to disclosure. In addition, with respect to certain documents containing identifying information of private citizens, the court ordered such personal information to be redacted from the documents. The Appellate Division then affirmed "as modified" the Supreme Court's judgment without costs."

Citing Gould v New York CityPolice Dept., 89 NY2d 267, the Appellate Division noted that "All government records are ... presumptively open for public inspection and copying unless they fall within one of the enumerated exemptions of Public Officers Law §87(2)", typically referred to as FOIL.  However, observed the court, FOIL permits an agency to deny access to records or portions thereof that are "inter-agency or intra-agency materials" that are (i) not "statistical or factual tabulations or data"; (ii) not "instructions to staff that affect the public"; (iii) not "final agency policy or determinations"; or (iv) not "external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government."

Further, said the court, the agency bears the burden of establishing that a document is exempt from disclosure.

Following an in camera** review of the documents in issue, the Appellate Division concluded that the lower court erred in ordering the disclosure of certain documents that it identified by its "Bates number". However, contrary to the Custodian's contention, the Appellate Division opined that Supreme Court "properly ordered disclosure of the remaining documents and portions of documents submitted for [its] review on the ground that the Custodian failed to establish that Public Officers Law §87(2 (g) exempted them from disclosure."

* Bates Numbering, also known as Bates Stamping, is an indexing method used for legal, business and medical documents (PDFs in most cases).

** "In private" and typically taking place in the private chambers of a judge, with the press and public excluded.

Click HEREto access the Appellate Division's decision. 

 

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