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University records of quasi-public employees not subject to disclosure

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         NEW YORK         Freedom of Information         Dec 1, 1999    

University records of quasi-public employees not subject to disclosure

  • Disciplinary records of employees of the public colleges at Cornell University, as the product of a “hybrid” of public and private institutions, do not have to be released.

The discipline records of employees who work for the quasi-public agencies associated with a private university are not subject to disclosure under the state’s open records law, a majority of New York’s highest court ruled in late November.

The court, however, declined to decide whether the Freedom of Information Law did apply to the agency’s other records.

The case was brought by an attorney, David Stoll, on behalf of his client, a professor at Cornell University who was disciplined for sexually harassing several female students. Although Cornell is a private school, it operates four of its 18 academic units as public colleges under a contract with the state and limited statutory authority granted by the legislature.

The four schools — the College of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Human Ecology, and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations — are funded by the state and are subject to some oversight by the State University of New York Board of Trustees, but they are not treated like state agencies for purposes of civil liability.

Stoll filed a request under the FOIL for records of any complaints lodged against employees of the four state-supported schools made under Cornell’s Code of Conduct system. Cornell denied the request, and Stoll filed suit in state court.

The “hybrid” nature of the schools — a mix of public body and private institution — precluded a prophylactic application of the FOIL, the Court of Appeals in Albany ruled Nov. 23. Instead, one must look to the particular record being sought in determining whether the FOIL applied, the court ruled.

“We hold only that, given the unique statutory scheme applicable here, Cornell’s disciplinary records are not subject to FOIL disclosure,” Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye wrote for the court. “Other, more public aspects of the statutory colleges may well be subject to FOIL, but we need not and do not reach such issues today.”

In this case, Cornell oversees the hiring — and discipline — of the schools’ employees. Therefore, records pertaining to those processes do not come under the FOIL. They would be subject to disclosure, the court suggests, if the state retained direct oversight over the schools and their internal procedures.

Judge George Bundy Smith dissented from the majority opinion. He criticized the majority’s reliance on prior case law and asserted that the fact that the colleges were not treated as public agencies for purposes of civil liability in personal injury cases was “insufficient reason to exempt Cornell from the FOIL request.”

(Stoll v. New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University; Counsel: David Stoll)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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