In a landmark 6-0 ruling, the state Court of Appeals sided with the Empire Center for Public Policy and held that the names of state and local government retirees receiving pensions are subject to public disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
The Empire Center had asked the state’s highest court to overturn state Supreme Court Appellate Division decisions that allowed the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System (NYSTRS) and the New York City Teachers’ Retirement System (NYCTRS) to keep secret the names of recipients of teacher pensions. The two pension funds justified their actions by citing court precedents that dealt with a much broader request for records, the Empire Center’s attorneys argued.
In its May 6 decision, the Court of Appeals agreed, directing the retirement systems to “disclose the requested names”—and requiring NYSTRS and NYCTRS to pay the Empire Center’s costs.
“This decision is a huge win for the public’s right to know,” said Timothy Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center. “The Court agreed with our argument that the state Freedom of Information Law actually means what it very clearly says. Taxpayers are primarily responsible for funding public pensions, and taxpayers ultimately back up the state constitutional guarantee that public pension benefits won’t be reduced. That’s why taxpayers are entitled to know who is getting how much from our public pension systems.”
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said: “It is gratifying that the Court of Appeals interpreted the law sensibly and in a manner that enhances the public’s right to know, particularly in relation to the expenditure of taxpayers money.”
The Empire Center’s case was supported in amicus briefs filed by major news media organizations and by the Citizens Union and the Citizens Budget Commission. Disclosure of retiree names was opposed in briefs filed by two of the state’s largest public employee unions, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the Public Employees Federation (PEF).
In his six-page opinion for the court, Judge Robert Smith rejected pension fund arguments that the names of retirees were covered by a FOIL provision exempting from disclosure the name and home address of a “beneficiary,” as opposed to retirees themselves. He Smith also said lower court rulings against the Empire Center had misinterpreted a 1983 Court of Appeals decision that involved a request for both names and addresses of retried police officers. The petitioner in that case was an organization that wanted to send membership solicitations to retirees. The Empire Center requested names, but not addresses, for posting on its transparency website, www.SeeThroughNY.net.
Smith also dismissed as “speculative” the argument by the retirement systems that disclosure of retiree names would constitute an invasion of privacy.