In this CPLR Article 78, the Suffern Education Association sought to compel "complete disclosure" of certain "redacted documents" supplied to it by the Suffern Central School District pursuant to the Association's Freedom of Information Law [FOIL] request. The School District had responded to the Association's FOIL request, in part, by including copies of several emails that had been "heavily redacted".
Supreme Court, after its in camera review of the redacted emails, directed the School District to provide the Association with unredacted documents. Supreme Court also awarded the Association its attorneys' fees and other costs associated with its Article 78 action. School District appealed the Supreme Court's rulings.
The Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court's decisions, explaining:
1. "FOIL requires that public agencies 'make available for public inspection and copying all records' except where they fall within one of the statute's enumerated exemptions." Courts "typically construe exemptions narrowly, and an agency has the burden of demonstrating that an exemption applies 'by articulating a particularized and specific justification for denying access'"; and
2. Public Officers Law §87(2)(g)(i) provides that an agency may deny access to records or portions thereof that "are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not," among other things, "statistical or factual tabulations or data."**
The Appellate Division, after its in camera inspection of the email communications at issue, concluded that the Supreme Court had properly determined that the redacted information constitutes factual data that is not exempt from disclosure and that the School District did not meet its burden to show that the redacted portions of the emails at issue were, in fact, exempt from disclosure.
Further, opined the Appellate Division, "Supreme Court providently exercised its discretion in awarding the [Association] attorneys' fees and other costs," noting that the Legislature had provided for the assessment of an attorney's fee and other litigation costs in FOIL proceedings "[in] order to create a clear deterrent to unreasonable delays and denials of access and thereby encourage every unit of government to make a good faith effort to comply with the requirements of FOIL."
Sustaining the Supreme Courts award of attorney's fee and other litigation costs, the Appellate Division observed that "it is undisputed that the [School District], in effect, denied the [Association] access to nonexempt documents, as no [such] documents were provided [to the Association] by the [School District's] self-imposed response date."
* Public Officers Law Article 6.
** The Appellate Division described factual data "as objective information, rather than 'opinions, ideas, or advice exchanged as part of the consultative or deliberative process of government decision making.'"Click HERE to access the Appellate Division's decision posted on the Internet.