August 20, 2021

Claiming the public-interest privilege in an effort to prevent the disclosure of communications between public officials alleged to be confidential

In this appeal, the Appellate Division considered the so-called "public-interest privilege," a common-law rule that "attaches to confidential communications between public officers, and to public officers, in the performance of their duties."

The rule may be applied where it can be shown that the public interest requires that such confidential communications or its sources should not be divulged because "the public interest would be harmed if the material were to lose its cloak of confidentiality".

The genesis of this action was a New York City Charter §93(b) investigation of the City of New York's preparation for, planning for, and response to the COVID-19 pandemic initiated by New York City's Comptroller. The Comptroller sought to identify how those actions impacted the City, its finances, residents and businesses. In connection with the investigation, the Comptroller issued a "request for information" to the City seeking information and communications related to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the City did not fully comply with the request for information, the Comptroller served a subpoena seeking the City's production of certain documents received, created or issued by the City. Additionally, over the course of the investigation, the Comptroller issued subpoenas seeking the testimony of certain City officials concerning the pandemic. 

Ultimately the matter was considered in the course of a special proceeding in which the City filed an answer and cross petition seeking a court order "dismissing the special proceeding and quashing, modifying or fixing conditions on the City's compliance with the subpoena."

Citing Matter of World Trade Ctr. Bombing Litig., 93 NY2d 1, the Appellate Division said that the governmental body asserting the public-interest privilege must offer specific support as to the potential harm to the public from disclosure of the information and, in the rare case, that this may require an in camera* examinations of the communications involved. Further, said the court, the privilege will be applied in the event the entity objecting to disclosing the information demonstrates that the public interest in confidentiality outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

The Appellate Division concluded that, based on the affidavits presented in the course of the special proceeding, in this particular situation the interest in protecting the City's pre-decisional and deliberative communications is stronger than the interest in allowing the Comptroller "to review, and possibly publish, the communications as part of his investigation."

In the words of the Appellate Division: "Given the ongoing threat of the pandemic, the Mayor and his leadership team needed access to information and unvarnished advice from all sources. This required that the sources have some assurance that their advice would remain confidential and free from fear of reprisal. The public disclosure of the requested documents involving confidential, deliberative communications among an inner circle of decision-makers concerning an emergency response to a pandemic could chill future deliberations about pressing matters, potentially to the public's harm."

Noting that Supreme Court did not make a ruling whether a privilege log or in camera review is necessary in this instance because the only issue litigated was the applicability of the privilege, the Appellate Division ruled that the Comptroller's request for a privilege log and in camera review of the documents over which the City claims privilege should be made to Supreme Court.

Click HERE to access the full text of the Appellate Division's ruling.

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