In a victory for the principle of open government, a New York State appellate court has issued two rulings in lawsuits filed by New York Civil Liberties Union that will strengthen New Yorkers’ ability to gain access to public records from state and local government agencies.

In separate unanimous decisions issued on July 7, a three-judge panel of the Appellate Division, Third Department reinforced a provision of the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) that allows courts to order public agencies to pay the attorneys’ fees and other court costs of parties who successfully sue for the disclosure of public records.

“People should not have to go to court to obtain public records, but, too often, public agencies leave them no other choice,” said Melanie Trimble, director of the NYCLU’s Capital Region Chapter. “These rulings send a clear message to public agencies: the ‘go ahead and sue us’ approach to public records requests doesn’t pay. They give government agencies more incentive to embrace transparency and disclose records without litigation.”

In 1982, the State Legislature added an attorneys’ fees provision to FOIL to provide an incentive for agencies to be forthcoming with responsive records, rather than fighting every request in court. The provision declared that where an agency lacked a reasonable basis for denying access to records, thereby forcing an unnecessary litigation, the agency would be responsible for the requestor’s court costs.

The Third Department’s rulings involved two NYCLU cases:

In NYCLU v. City of Saratoga Springs, the NYCLU successfully challenged the Saratoga Springs Police Department’s refusal to disclose public records concerning its use of Tasers.

In New York State Defenders Association v. New York State Police, the NYCLU successfully sued the New York State Police on behalf of New York State Defenders Association for public records concerning the videotaping of custodial interrogations.

In both cases, State Supreme Court judges denied the NYCLU’s request for attorneys’ fees. The Appellate Division overturned those rulings.

NYCLU Staff Attorney Adriana Piñon was lead counsel in the Saratoga Springs case. NYCLU Staff Attorney Andrew L. Kalloch represented NYSDA in the State Police case.