Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball was a 1980 case before the State of New York Court of Appeals concerning the application of public records laws to volunteer fire departments.
This case established a number of important precedents:
- Volunteer organizations are subject to the same standards for determining if a private organization is subject to FOIL as organized extensions of the government.
- You cannot separate the functions of private bodies between governmental and non-governmental functions and release only the records relating to governmental functions. Instead the entity must be considered in its entirety.
- Temporary transfers of records do not alter an agencies possession of records and do not remove their responsibility for complying with records requests for those records.
- The Ossining Citizen Register, a subdivision of the Westchester Rockland Newspapers, submitted a records request to the local volunteer fire department for records relating to a public lottery sponsored by the department.
- The town and the fire department rejected the request, alleging that the fund-raising aspects of the volunteer fire department are separate from their governmental function of fire fighting and are thus not records subject to the FOIL. They also rejected the request based on privacy issues surrounding the dispersal of lottery funds to private individuals.
- The newspaper filed suit. Prior to trial, the records were temporarily transferred to the district attorney because they were involved in another investigation into the legality of the lottery
- The trial court ruled in favor of the newspaper but permitted redaction of exempted material.
- The first court of appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court.
- The final decision was appealed by the town and the fire department.
Ruling of the court
The trial court ruled in favor of the newspaper, ordering the release of the documents in question. The court also ordered an inspection by the city in order to determine which, if any, of the documents had personal information about individuals who had received funds, and ordered the redaction of said personal information.
The district court of appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court.
The State of New York Court of Appeals affirmed the final decision, ordering the documents released. The court first rejected the contention that because the fire department is volunteer, it is not a public body, instead determining that there is no difference between an active arm of a public body and a voluntary organization designed for the same purposes. The court went on to reject the fire department's contention that its firefighting and fund-raising efforts were separate and distinct. The Court stated to the opposite, "For not only are the expanding boundaries of governmental activity increasingly difficult to draw, but in perception, if not in actuality, there is bound to be considerable crossover between governmental and nongovernmental activities, especially where both are carried on by the same person or persons." Instead, the court adopted the policy that nothing in the definition of record relates to the purpose of that record and consequentially all records produced by public bodies, whether they involve a governmental function or not, are subject to FOIL. Finally the court rejected the contention that the city or the fire department were not responsible for the records because they happened to be transferred to the district attorney. The court instead established that because the transfer was temporary and the city intended to regain the records upon completion of the investigation, the city was still liable for delivering those records, which were still considered in their "possession." Based on these decisions, the court ordered the release of the documents in question, thereby affirming the decision of the lower courts including awarding attorney fees to the newspaper.