Top Court Rules for Warehouse Owner Over State in Columbia Records Suit
Eliot Brown Dec. 15, 2009, 4:45 p.m.
It’s been a pretty good month for Nick Sprayregen.
On Dec. 3, the owner of a set of warehouses in the footprint of Columbia University’s planned West Harlem expansion, with his lawyer, Norman Siegel, were handed a highly unexpected victory in a suit that challenged the use of eminent domain for the project.
And now the state’s top court has ruled in his favor on a different matter: open records.
The New York Court of Appeals on Tuesday unanimously ruled that the state’s economic development agency, which administers eminent domain, must turn a set of records over that Mr. Sprayregen had requested through the Freedom of Information Law. The agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, had provided numerous documents but withheld a set related to a 2004 agreement between the agency and Columbia. Mr. Sprayregen appealed the agency’s denial of his FOIL request, and was denied again. He then sued in state Supreme Court and won, though ESDC did not provide all the documents, preferring to appeal. He won again at the appellate level; ESDC appealed again; and now the agency has exhausted its appeals.
The ruling of the court Tuesday found that the agency was overly broad in denying Mr. Sprayregen’s FOIL request, and then changed its reasoning for not providing the documents, with the court saying and its “initial determination was superficial, at best.”
Mr. Sprayregen called the ruling “an incredibly powerful decision.”
Coming a few months before he will presumably argue the state’s appeal in the eminent domain case, Mr. Sprayregen said the decision is encouraging given that the court unanimously acknowledged a flaw in the process, which was one of the reasons cited in the recent eminent domain ruling.
“Not only has the court already become familiar with the whole controversy, but they’ve already ruled that the conduct of this state has been improper and they violated our due process rights,” he said.
Warner Johnston, an ESDC spokesman, issued a lengthy statement, saying the agency had withheld only 30 pages, in seven documents, out of a total 8,000 pages of documents made public:
This was a transparent process and none of these documents affects the merits of ESDC’s findings. In ordering the release of these 7 documents, the Court of Appeals today has articulated a clearer, higher standard for agencies to meet in order to avail themselves of the exemptions from disclosure properly provided for in the Freedom of Information Law. The heightened standard articulated by the Court today to support FOIL exemption imposes substantial additional burdens, at a time of severe fiscal constraint, on this and other agencies which will result in additional time and expense in responding to the multiplicity of expansive FOIL requests regularly received with respect to large, complex projects. ESDC continues to believe in the importance of transparency in government and will release the 7 documents in question, in compliance with today’s decision.