Court of Appeals Upholds Release of Documents Under FOIL Despite Claim of Exemption

The New York Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the Appellate Division requiring release of documents by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), despite a claim by ESDC that the documents are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). In a rebuke to procedures followed by ESDC, in the Matter of West Harlem Business Group v. Empire State Development Corporation, the court found that the ESDC had failed to follow the statutory requirements in responding to the FOIL requests of a group that was seeking information about the proposed condemnation of property in West Harlem.

Initially, ESDC refused to release the documents requested. On administrative appeal the ESDC merely repeated the general denial without particularizing the basis for the denial. Once the action was commenced ESDC claimed various exemptions for different categories of documents but, the court found, again failed to specify which documents fell into each category of exemption. Therefore, the Supreme Court ordered an in camera review of the documents, labeled the documents according to its analysis of the documents and ultimately ordered their release.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court ruling. On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the ESDC argued, among other things, that the Supreme Court had placed documents in the wrong categories. The court held:

"In response to Supreme Court's order to produce the documents for inspection, ESDC failed to submit the documentation in any semblance of order, but rather proffered the documents with the blanket caveat that they were either nonresponsive to the FOIL request, constituted intra- or inter-agency material, or had already been disclosed. None of the affidavits submitted by ESDC employees sufficiently identified the particular exemption to which the submitted records were subject, leaving that task to Supreme Court. ESDC cannot now be heard to complain that Supreme Court improperly labeled the documents in the manner it did, as it is not the function of Supreme Court to apply the exemptions for the agency. Since ESDC failed to meet its burden of proof relative to the exemptions, Supreme Court properly ordered disclosure of the documents."
-Steven M. Silverberg