Freedom of information laws gives the public the right to request access to government records. The New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) is based on the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The goal of both laws is to allow for more transparency in government by requiring disclosure of requested documentation and records by governmental agencies. While FOIL and FOIA disclosures are subject to exemptions, sometimes agencies deny requests for documents and records that they should be provided under the law. The following guide will help you avoid some of the pitfalls people make when asking for records under FOIL so that you can get the information you need.
- Do not ask for “All” documents and records. The New York Court of Appeals has held that an agency does not have to look for a needle in a haystack. Accordingly, your request must specify in some detail what records you want. For example, the request should use language such as “all documents relating to ___ in the context of ___.” This will usually suffice to let the agency know what type of documents you are looking for so they will know where to search for them.
- Do not be discouraged when you get rejected on your first try. Many requests are partially, or completely, rejected. However, there is an appeal process that allows you to better explain your request and argue as to why you are entitled to your requested documents.
- Redactions are not created equally. It is common to receive redacted documents (i.e., text in the document has been blacked out) because some information in the document is protected, such as personally identifiable information. However, some redactions may be appealed and result in fewer redactions or completely redaction-free pages. Do not automatically accept that a redaction means that you are not entitled to that information.
- Follow each agency’s rules for appeals. Do not miss the 30-day deadline to appeal FOIL requests. The agencies are strict, so a late filing provides them with an easy excuse to deny your appeal. There are still methods to pursue your request, but it may take longer to obtain the documents you want. Also keep in mind that some agencies, such as the NYPD, have separate email addresses to send an appeal of a FOIL request. Make sure you follow all rules, or the agency may choose to dismiss your appeal.
If you have been frustrated with the FOIA or FOIL process, contact one of our attorneys to discuss your matter and determine how we can assist you.