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Office of the ATTORNEY GENERAL
GREG ABBOTT
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December 12, 2002
Mr. Loren B. Smith
Olson & Olson
333 Clay Street, Suite 3485
Houston, Texas 77002

OR2002-7095

Dear Mr. Smith:

You ask whether certain information is subject to required public disclosure under chapter 552 of the Government Code. Your request was assigned ID# 173620.

The City of Stafford (the "city"), which you represent, received a request seeking the answer to whether a named individual changed his beneficiary designation prior to his death. In this regard, we note that the Public Information Act (the "Act") does not require a governmental body to answer factual questions, perform legal research, or create new information in responding to a request. See Open Records Decision Nos. 605 at 2 (1992), 563 at 8 (1990), 555 at 1-2 (1990), 534 at 2-3 (1989). However, a governmental body has a duty to make a good faith effort to relate a request for information to information the governmental body holds or to which it has access. Economic Opportunities Dev. Corp. v. Bustamante, 562 S.W.2d 266, 267-68 (Tex. Civ. App. - San Antonio 1978, writ dism'd); Open Records Decision No. 561 at 8 (1990). Because you have identified information responsive to the requestor's question, we address your claim that the submitted information is excepted from disclosure under section 552.101 of the Government Code.

Section 552.101 excepts from disclosure "information considered to be confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision." This section encompasses information protected by common-law privacy and excepts from disclosure private facts about an individual. See Industrial Found. v. Texas Indus. Accident Bd., 540 S.W.2d 668 (Tex. 1976), cert. denied, 430 U.S. 931 (1977). Information must be withheld from the public under common-law privacy when (1) it is highly intimate and embarrassing such that its release would be highly objectionable to a person of ordinary sensibilities, and (2) there is no legitimate public interest in its disclosure. See id. at 685; see also Open Records Decision No. 611 at 1 (1992).

As you acknowledge, however, the right of privacy is purely personal and lapses upon death. See Moore v. Charles B. Pierce Film Enters. Inc., 589 S.W.2d 489 (Tex. Civ. App.--Texarkana 1979, writ ref'd n.r.e.); see also Attorney General Opinions JM-229 (1984); H-917 (1976). We therefore conclude that the deceased individual's privacy right in the records has lapsed and so the records may not be withheld on the basis of protecting the deceased individual's privacy.

However, if the release of information about a deceased person reveals highly intimate or embarrassing information about living persons, the information must be withheld under common-law privacy. See Attorney General Opinion JM-229. Beneficiaries have a common-law right of privacy in the financial information. See Open Records Decision No. 373 at 3. Accordingly, to the extent these records reveal the identity of any currently designated living beneficiary, that identifying information must be withheld pursuant to common-law privacy to protect the beneficiary's privacy interests.

With regard to social security numbers belonging to the individual or individuals other than a currently designated beneficiary, such information may be confidential under federal law. A social security number may be withheld in some circumstances under section 552.101 in conjunction with the 1990 amendments to the federal Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 405(c)(2)(C)(viii)(I). See Open Records Decision No. 622 (1994). These amendments make confidential social security numbers and related records that are obtained and maintained by a state agency or political subdivision of the state pursuant to any provision of law enacted on or after October 1, 1990. See id. We have no basis for concluding that the social security information at issue is confidential under section 405(c)(2)(C)(viii)(I), and therefore excepted from public disclosure under section 552.101 of the Act on the basis of that federal provision. We caution, however, that section 552.352 of the Act imposes criminal penalties for the release of confidential information. Prior to releasing any social security number information, you should ensure that it was not obtained or is not maintained by the city pursuant to any provision of law enacted on or after October 1, 1990.

In summary, you must withhold information that identifies a currently designated living beneficiary under section 552.101 in conjunction with common-law privacy. Social security number information of another individual or individuals may be confidential under section 552.101 and the federal Social Security Act. The remaining information must be released.

This letter ruling is limited to the particular records at issue in this request and limited to the facts as presented to us; therefore, this ruling must not be relied upon as a previous determination regarding any other records or any other circumstances.

This ruling triggers important deadlines regarding the rights and responsibilities of the governmental body and of the requestor. For example, governmental bodies are prohibited from asking the attorney general to reconsider this ruling. Gov't Code 552.301(f). If the governmental body wants to challenge this ruling, the governmental body must appeal by filing suit in Travis County within 30 calendar days. Id. 552.324(b). In order to get the full benefit of such an appeal, the governmental body must file suit within 10 calendar days. Id. 552.353(b)(3), (c). If the governmental body does not appeal this ruling and the governmental body does not comply with it, then both the requestor and the attorney general have the right to file suit against the governmental body to enforce this ruling. Id. 552.321(a).

If this ruling requires the governmental body to release all or part of the requested information, the governmental body is responsible for taking the next step. Based on the statute, the attorney general expects that, within 10 calendar days of this ruling, the governmental body will do one of the following three things: 1) release the public records; 2) notify the requestor of the exact day, time, and place that copies of the records will be provided or that the records can be inspected; or 3) notify the requestor of the governmental body's intent to challenge this letter ruling in court. If the governmental body fails to do one of these three things within 10 calendar days of this ruling, then the requestor should report that failure to the attorney general's Open Government Hotline, toll free, at 877/673-6839. The requestor may also file a complaint with the district or county attorney. Id. 552.3215(e).

If this ruling requires or permits the governmental body to withhold all or some of the requested information, the requestor can appeal that decision by suing the governmental body. Id. 552.321(a); Texas Department of Public Safety v. Gilbreath, 842 S.W.2d 408,411 (Tex. App.--Austin 1992, no writ).

Please remember that under the Act the release of information triggers certain procedures for costs and charges to the requestor. If records are released in compliance with this ruling, be sure that all charges for the information are at or below the legal amounts. Questions or complaints about over-charging must be directed to Hadassah Schloss at the Texas Building and Procurement Commission at 512/475-2497.

If the governmental body, the requestor, or any other person has questions or comments about this ruling, they may contact our office. We note that a third party may challenge this ruling by filing suit seeking to withhold information from a requestor. Gov't Code 552.325. Although there is no statutory deadline for contacting us, the attorney general prefers to receive any comments within 10 calendar days of the date of this ruling.

Sincerely,

Kristen Bates
Assistant Attorney General
Open Records Division
KAB/seg
Ref: ID# 173620
Enc. Submitted documents

c: Ms. Patricia Pinkney
Bayou Manor
4141 South Braeswood
Houston, Texas 77025
(w/o enclosures)


 

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