Anonymous letters can be withheld to protect privacy, confidential source
NEW YORK — The Department of Human Services can withhold an anonymous letter making false criminal accusations in order to protect the author’s privacy and the author’s status as a confidential source, a federal District Court in New York City ruled in mid-January.
New York City resident Blanch Ortiz in the late 1980s was accused in anonymous letters to state and federal agencies of lying about her age and identity for social security, pension and rent benefits. Investigations at each of the agencies cleared her of any wrongdoing.
According to court documents, Ortiz believes that her landlord sent the letters in an effort to get her out of her rent- controlled apartment. In November 1989 she asked the agencies for copies of the letters, saying that she intended to take legal action against the sender. The New York agencies gave her copies, but the federal Department of Health and Human Services refused to provide the letter it had received.
In May 1991 Ortiz sued the federal government in federal district court in New York City, saying she needed the letter as evidence.
HHS said that the anonymous letter was exempt under the federal Freedom of Information Act’s Law Enforcement Exemption regarding privacy and confidential sources (Exemption 7c and 7d).
Judge John Sprizzo read the letter in chambers and ruled for the government. He said that because the letter contained “highly personal information,” release would probably show that the source knew Ortiz. Because Ortiz would be likely to retaliate, disclosure would intrude upon his or her privacy.
Sprizzo conceded that the government could not have promised confidentiality to an anonymous source. But he said that an anonymous author who alleged criminal conduct would expect the accusations to be confidential. He or she would not have made the charges without believing they would be confidential, the judge wrote.
Ortiz is appealing the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City (2d Cir.). (Ortiz v. HHS; Counsel: Jonathan Weiss, New York City)