April 20, 2004

The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence, unless otherwise indicated.


I have received your letter concerning requests made to the Town of Big Flats pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law. You questioned the propriety of deletions from "cellular phone billing records" and asked how you might "craft a succinct request" in consideration of responses by the Town indicating that your requests are "not reasonably described."

First, with respect to the deletions from the phone bills, you wrote that you have discussed the issue "with government attorneys who opined that as the telephone calls placed and received were taxpayer funded, they were discoverable via the Freedom of information process." While that may generally be so, I do not believe that it is so in every instance.

In this regard, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law. From my perspective, there are potentially several that might be cited to deny access to portions of the bills.

Often the most significant are §§87(2)(b) and 89(2)(b), both of which pertain to the ability to deny access insofar as disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Based on the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law, it is clear that public officers and employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that those individuals are required to be more accountable than others. The courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of the official duties of a public officer or employee are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NY 2d 954 (1978); Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty., March 25, 1981; Montes v. State, 406 NYS 2d 664 (Court of Claims, 1978); Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); Scaccia v. NYS Division of State Police, 530 NYS 2d 309, 138 AD 2d 50 (1988); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)]. Conversely, to the extent that items relating to public officers or employees are irrelevant to the performance of their official duties, it has been found that disclosure would indeed constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Matter of Wool, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., NYLJ, Nov. 22, 1977, dealing with membership in a union; Minerva v. Village of Valley Stream, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., May 20, 1981, involving the back of a check payable to a municipal attorney that could indicate how that person spends his/her money; Selig v. Sielaff, 200 AD 2d 298 (1994), concerning disclosure of social security numbers].

Based on the decisions cited above, when a public officer or employee uses a telephone in the course of his or her official duties, bills involving the use of the telephone would, in my opinion, be relevant to the performance of that person's official duties. On that basis, I do not believe that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy with respect to an officer or employee serving as a government official.

Since phone bills often list the numbers called, the time and length of calls and the charges, it has been contended by some that disclosure of numbers called might result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, not with respect to a public employee who initiated the call, but rather with respect to the recipient of the call. When phone numbers appear on a bill, those numbers do not necessarily indicate who in fact was called or who picked up the receiver in response to a call. Therefore, an indication of the phone number would ordinarily disclose little or nothing regarding the nature of a conversation. Further, even though the numbers may be disclosed, nothing in the Freedom of Information Law would require an individual to indicate the nature of a conversation.

Again, however, this is not to suggest that the numbers appearing on every phone bill must be disclosed in every instance. Exceptions to the general rule of disclosure might arise if, for example, a telephone is used in the performance of one’s official duties to contact recipients of public assistance or persons seeking certain health services. It has been advised in the past that if a government employee contacts those or perhaps other classes of persons as part of the employee's primary ongoing and routine duties, there may be grounds for withholding phone numbers listed on a bill. For instance, disclosure of numbers called by a caseworker who phones applicants for or recipients of public assistance might identify those who were contacted. In my view, the numbers could likely be deleted in that circumstance to protect against an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy due to the status of those contacted. Similarly, if a law enforcement official phones witnesses or informants, disclosure of the numbers might endanger an individual's life or safety, and they might justifiably be deleted pursuant to §87(2)(f) of the Freedom of Information Law.

That provision might also apply when government officials perform functions related to emergency situations and their cell phones must be free of interference to the greatest extent possible. If their cell phone numbers were to be made public, potential law breakers might call those numbers constantly, thereby precluding the effective use of the cell phones to the detriment of the public. In that kind of situation, I believe that §87(2)(f) might properly be cited.

The remaining exception of possible significance, §87(2)(i), states that an agency may withhold records or portions thereof which "if disclosed would jeopardize an agency’s capacity to guarantee the security of its information technology assets, such assets encompassing both electronic information systems and infrastructures." By disclosing email addresses, for example, viruses could be transmitted or other incursions might occur that could result in the harm south to be avoided by the provision cited above. Similarly, cell phones now perform functions additional to those typical of the traditional telephone. They may be used to transmit email or photographs; they can connect to the internet; they can store a variety of information. Moreover, the charges for the use of cell phones involve not only the calls made from a cell phone, but incoming calls as well. That being so, the public pays for air time. Again, persons other than government officials could make calls at significant taxpayer expense and in a manner that could jeopardize government functions.

Second, as you may be aware, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law requires that an applicant "reasonably describe" the records sought. The Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has held that to deny a request on the ground that it fails to reasonably describe the records, an agency must establish that "the descriptions were insufficient for purposes of locating and identifying the documents sought" [Konigsberg v. Coughlin, 68 NY 2d 245, 249 (1986)].

The Court in Konigsberg found that the agency could not reject the request due to its breadth and also stated that:

"respondents have failed to supply any proof whatsoever as to the nature - or even the existence - of their indexing system: whether the Department's files were indexed in a manner that would enable the identification and location of documents in their possession (cf. National Cable Tel. Assn. v Federal Communications Commn., 479 F2d 183, 192 [Bazelon, J.] [plausible claim of nonidentifiability under Federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 USC section 552 (a) (3), may be presented where agency's indexing system was such that 'the requested documents could not be identified by retracing a path already trodden. It would have required a wholly new enterprise, potentially requiring a search of every file in the possession of the agency'])" (id. at 250).

In my view, whether a request reasonably describes the records sought, as suggested by the Court of Appeals, may be dependent upon the terms of a request, as well as the nature of an agency's filing or record-keeping system. In Konigsberg, it appears that the agency was able to locate the records on the basis of an inmate's name and identification number.

While I am unfamiliar with the recordkeeping systems of the Town, to extent that the records sought can be located with reasonable effort, I believe that a request would meet the requirement of reasonably describing the records. On the other hand, if the records are not maintained in a manner that permits their retrieval except by reviewing perhaps hundreds or even thousands of records individually in an effort to locate those falling within the scope of the request, to that extent, a request would not in my opinion meet the standard of reasonably describing the records. It is possible that records falling within the scope of a request may be maintained in several locations by a variety of units within Town, and that those units maintain their records by means of different filing and retrieval methods. If an office maintains all of its records regarding a certain topical area, since the beginning of its existence, in a single file it may be a simple task to locate the records. If, however, records are not maintained by subject, but rather are kept chronologically, locating the records might involve a search, in essence, for the needle in the haystack. Based on the holding by the State’s highest court, an agency is not required to engage in that kind of effort.

In short, in order to reasonably describe records of your interest, a request should be made in a manner that is consistent with an agency’s filing, record keeping and retrieval systems.

I hope that I have been of assistance.


Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director


cc: Hon. Theresa Dean