Mar 22, 2021

Reclaim the Records Takes New York City to Court

The following is an excerpt from a new announcement from Reclaim the Records:


Reclaim The Records’ two-year legal battle with multiple New York City government agencies makes headway, now goes before the judge 

Hello again from your friends at Reclaim The Records! Today we have an exciting update in our long-running legal battle to (1) acquire and then release to the public about 1.6 million currently-inaccessible NYC death certificates from 1949-1968, totally free, as uncertified digital scans that we want to put online, and (2) strike down some truly awful new rules that heavily restrict public access to twentieth century New York City vital records, even from some of the relatives of the people directly named in the records.

This project originally started back in October 2017, when the City held a public hearing at which none of the people in attendance and none of the more than six thousand people nationwide who submitted public comments voiced support for the new and incredibly strict record access rules. But the City went ahead and approved the stricter rule change anyway.

Well, that just wouldn’t do. So in February 2019, we sued them.

And it was quite a long list of “them”. The Respondents in our case include the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, the New York City Bureau of Vital Statistics; the New York City Board of Health; Oxiris Barbot in her official capacity as New York City Commissioner of Health; Gretchen Van Wye in her official capacity as New York City Registrar; and last but certainly not least, Steven P. Schwartz in his official capacity as former New York City Registrar.

We had one court hearing in November 2019 and one in early 2020, before two different judges, facing off with the City over some of the issues. And then the pandemic struck, and things in the New York City court system understandably got put on hold for a while.

But now, we’ve got some movement — and, you guys, we don’t want to jinx it, but it seems to be looking promising.

Check out the fun legal paperwork!

There are a lot of interesting legal nerd issues to talk about in this case. It’s not just “can we plz have copies of a cousin’s death certificate” it’s also a lot of discussion about whether a city agency can make rules and policies, even if that agency has been given lots of discretionary powers, that can override the state’s laws, particularly a state Freedom of Information Law. And when an agency does make rules, were they made capriciously? Were they overstepping their specific areas of expertise? Can a Department of Health really hold itself up as an expert on privacy?

These are the kinds of issues that we will likely be dealing with in every state and territory, as we continue our nationwide work to fight for better public records access. So even if these New York records aren’t part of your personal family tree, think about the underlying concepts and arguments, and how they could be applied to someday release more records in your area of interest.

NOTE: The above is an excerpt from the Reclaim the Records newsletter and is too long to reproduce in its entirely here. You can read the full announcement in the Reclaim the Records newsletter at: