ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - A watchdog of public salaries in New York persuaded the state's highest court to open up the names of public pension retirees.
Only the home addresses of retired workers receiving benefits from public employee retirement systems can be withheld under New York's Freedom of Information Law, according to the unanimous decision filed last week by the Court of Appeals.
The Empire Center for New York State Policy sued to get the names of retired teachers for its SeeThroughNY website, a searchable portal that uses FOIL to collect state and local government employee salaries, teacher and school superintendent contracts, and spending by public entities.
An Albany-based affiliate of the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the center says its data offer New Yorkers "a clearer view of how their state and local tax dollars are spent."
The site launched in 2008 but hit a snag four years later with the New York State Teachers' Retirement System and the Teachers' Retirement System of the City of New York. Each provides retirement, disability and death benefits to eligible educators and administrators.
Both groups had supplied information on their members in the past, but this time refused to release the retired teachers' names, citing an exemption under state public officers law, which governs FOIL.
Before Tuesday's reversal, two lower courts had said Empire Center did not have a case.
"The answer to the question before us - are retirees' names exempt from disclosure? - is plain from the face of the statute," Judge Robert Smith wrote for the six-member panel. "It exempts 'the home address ... of a retiree,' but not the retiree's name."
The statute does exempt both the name and address of a retiree's beneficiary, which is commonly defined as "a family member of an employee or an employee or retiree who is entitled to benefits after the employee's or retiree's death," Smith said.
That could cause confusion if "beneficiary" were read broadly to include retirees, since they "do benefit from retirement systems," Smith added.
"But 'beneficiary' was obviously not used in that sense in this statute, because the statute provides a separate and more limited exemption for a 'retiree,'" the ruling states.
Empire Center made this argument in its complaints, and "the courts below were not blind to this logic," Smith said.
They nevertheless "believed themselves bound to deny disclosure" by a 1983 Court of Appeals decision that blocked access to the names and addresses of New York City police retirees by the New York Veteran Police Association, which wanted the information to solicit new members, according to the ruling.
"The lower courts read that case too broadly," Smith wrote.
In the police case, names and addresses were needed for solicitation letters, and the Court of Appeals was never asked to consider one without the other, the court noted. So the decision that public officers law barred both from disclosure was interpreted by the lower courts "as meaning that it foreclosed even partial relief - though partial relief was never in issue," Smith wrote.
"In this they erred," he said. "Our decisions are not to be read as deciding questions that were not before us and that we did not consider."
The court also rejected the argument by the retirement systems that releasing teachers' names could invade their privacy if that information were used to ferret out home addresses and expose retirees to "intrusive communications."
"On this record, however, the idea that anyone's privacy will be invaded is speculative," Smith wrote. "This petitioner is not, as the petitioner in the Veteran Police
case was, interested in sending membership solicitations to retirees. When a FOIL request that seems to have such a purpose is made, it will be time to consider the effect of the privacy exemption" in public officers law.
Concurring were Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Judges Victoria Graffeo, Susan Read, Eugene Pigott and Jenny Rivera. Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam did not take part.
Arguing for the Empire Center was Alia Smith of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz in Manhattan. Jeffrey Lang of the state attorney general's office represented the New York State Teachers' Retirement System. Elizabeth Freedman of the corporation counsel's office in New York City represented the Teachers' Retirement System of the City of New York.
Amicus briefs came from New York State United Teachers, the Albany Times Union newspaper, the New York State Public Employees Federation and the Citizens Budget Commission