July 20, 1994
Mr. Michael Stein
68 Mill Pond Lane
Bay Shore, NY 11706
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
Dear Mr. Stein:
I have received your letter of July 13 and various materials related to it. You have sought Medicaid records as well as the results of an investigation that is being carried out by the Suffolk County Department of Social Services.
In this regard, it is noted at the outset that the Committee on Open Goverment is authorized to provide advice with respect to the Freedom of Information Law. The Committee does not maintain records generally, such as those in which you are interested, and it is not empowered to compel an agency to grant or deny access to records. I offer the following comments, however, concerning the issue that you presented.
First, 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.
Second, relevant in my opinion is the initial ground for denial, §87(2)(a), which pertains to records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." One such statute is §369(3) of the Social Services Law, which pertains to Medicaid and provides that:
"Any inconsistent provision of this chapter or other law notwithstanding, all information received by public welfare and public health officials and service officers concerning applicants for and recipients of medical assistance may be disclosed or used only for purposes directly connected with the administration of medical assistance for needy persons."
Another is §372 of the Social Services Law, which requires that various records be kept by "every court, and every public board, commission, institution, or officer having powers or charged with duties in relation to abandoned, delinquent, destitute, neglected or dependent children who shall receive, accept or commit any child..." Subdivision (4) of §372 states in relevant part that such records:
"shall be deemed confidential and shall be safeguarded from coming to the knowledge of and from inspection or examination or by any person other than one authorized, by the department, by a judge of the court of claims when such records are required for the trial of a claim or other proceeding in such court or by a justice of the supreme court, or by a judge of the family court when such records are required for the trial of a proceeding in such court, after a notice to all interested persons and a hearing, to receive such knowledge or to make such inspection or examination. No person shall divulge the information thus obtained without authorization so to do by the department, or by such judge or justice."
Based on the foregoing, I do not believe that records maintained by entities having duties relating to the classes of children described at the beginning of §372 of the Social Services Law can be disclosed, unless authorization to disclose is conferred by a court or by the Department of Social Services. Further, §136 of the Social Services Law provides, in brief, that records concerning an applicant for or recipient of public assistance are confidential. That statute and the regulations promulgated thereunder by the Department of Social Services prescribe the narrow conditions in which the records in question may be disclosed.
In my view, because the records in question are exempted from disclosure to the public, the Freedom of Information Law does not govern rights of access to them; rather, any rights of access would be conferred by the Social Services Law and applicable regulations.
With respect to access by the subject of case files, state regulations 18 NYCRR §357.3, provide in relevant part that:
"(c) Disclosure to applicant, recipient, or persons acting in his behalf. (1) The case record shall be available for examination at any reasonable time by the applicant or recipient or his authorized representative upon reasonable notice to the local district. The only exceptions to access are:
(i) those materials to which access is governed by separate statutes, such as child welfare, foster case, adoption or child abuse or neglect or any records maintained for the purposes of the Child Care Review Services;
(ii) those materials being maintained separate from public assistance files for purposes of criminal prosecution and referral to the district attorney's office; and
(iii) the county attorney or welfare attorney's files.
(2) Information may be released to a person, a public official, or another social agency from whom the applicant or recipient has requested a particular service when it may properly be assumed that the client has requested the inquirer to act in his behalf and when such information is related to the particular service requested."
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman