(The Center Square) – A public interest law firm linked to the high-profile Janus v. ASCME case received another recent favorable ruling in a lawsuit concerning the accessibility of public employee information in New York.
In November, the Liberty Justice Center filed the lawsuit, Suhr v. New York State Department of Public Service, challenging Democrat New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 183, which addressed the personal privacy of public sector workers.
Cuomo’s order was signed June 27, 2018 – the same day of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Mark Janus’ favor in a pivotal case that drew sharper lines around the rights public employees have in situations involving labor unions.
In the order, Cuomo gave several reasons for its enactment, including a stipulation, he said, that would prevent workers from being attacked, harassed and intimidated.
During a news conference and statement in New York the day he signed the order, Cuomo made explicit that the move was in response to the Janus ruling.
"The Supreme Court's devastating Janus decision was advanced by billionaires and extreme conservatives who want to destroy the labor movement, and now those same forces are shamelessly trying to intimidate public employees into leaving unions," he said. "In New York, we say no way, no how to union busting. New York is a union state, and as long as I am governor of the state of New York, we will do everything in our power to protect union members and ensure the labor movement continues to deliver on the promise of the American dream."
Ten months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and Cuomo’s order, Daniel Suhr, an associate senior attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, said he filed an information request with the New York Department of Civil Service for basic payroll information concerning public employees.
The goal behind the information requests, Suhr said, was to inform the public employees of their constitutional rights.
While Suhr received two of the three pieces of information in his request – employees’ names and job titles – state officials declined to furnish the ZIP codes attached to their places of residence.
The denial of the third piece of the request prompted Suhr last fall to file his lawsuit, which Acting State Supreme Court Judge Richard Koweek ruled on May 5 in Albany County.
The court issued three reasons for siding with Suhr in the case, including a ruling that a ZIP code is not the same as furnishing an employee’s full address. The ruling also stated Cuomo’s order preempted state statute.
“We’re very pleased with the ruling,” Suhr said in an interview with The Center Square. “It vindicates the rights of every citizen. In a democracy, transparency is a fundamental principle.”
While the lawsuit addressed a specific, granular issue, Suhr said it pointed to a far bigger matter.
“This was about something much broader, and that was Gov. Cuomo’s executive order,” Suhr said. “The real crux of this case … is saying that the governor cannot trump state law. Making sure we have robust, open records access laws is fundamentally important.”
While the lawsuit was filed months before the onset of COVID-19, Suhr said the legal case continues to put a spotlight on the hot topic of the rights governors have across the U.S. amid the pandemic.
“Governors are not freewheeling executives,” Suhr said. “They still need to abide by the law.”
The New York Department of Public Service has up to 30 days to appeal Koweek’s ruling if officials within the state agency choose to take such a course of action.