Settlement Agreement Entered by Public Entity Contractor Disclosable Under FOIA
In August 2015, journalist Bruce Rushton (Rushton) filed a FOIA request with the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) seeking all settlement agreements connected with the death of an inmate, including any agreements involving private entities charged with providing health care to the inmate, such as Wexford Health Services (Wexford). DOC did not have a copy of the settlement agreement and requested it from Wexford. Wexford begrudgingly turned over a redacted copy of the settlement agreement but refused to turn over an unredacted copy. DOC then provided Rushton with the redacted copy. Rushton then filed suit in the Sangamon County Circuit Court (Circuit Court) against DOC for violating FOIA, and Wexford intervened. At issue was whether Section 7(2) of FOIA applied to the settlement agreement. Section 7(2) provides that:
A public record that is not in the possession of a public body bus is in the possession of a party with whom the agency has contracted to perform a governmental function on behalf of the public body, and that directly relates to the governmental function and is not otherwise exempt under this Act, shall be considered a public record of the public body.
Wexford argued the settlement agreement did not “directly relate” to the governmental function it performed for DOC because it “simply memorializes its independent business decision to settle a legal claim.” Rushton argued the opposite, reasoning that the settlement related to a claim that Wexford failed to properly perform its governmental function (providing medical care to prisoners). The Circuit Court agreed with Wexford, Rushton appealed, and the appellate court reversed.
Wexford then appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court (Supreme Court), where it again argued that the settlement agreement did not “directly relate” to its governmental function and also argued that the settlement agreement was not a “public record” under Section 2.20 of FOIA. Section 2.20 states:
All settlement agreements entered into by or on behalf of a public body are public records subject to inspection and copying by the public, provided that information exempt from disclosure under Section 7 of this Act may be redacted.
Wexford asserted that because Section 2.20 does not mention private contractors, it did not apply to them. Looking to the intent of FOIA, the Supreme Court found that public records are presumed to be open and accessible, meaning that FOIA is to be accorded liberal construction and its exemptions are to be construed narrowly. It further stated that Section 2.20 could not be read in isolation from Section 7(2), and held that the legislature intended settlement agreements to be public records. The Supreme Court was also not swayed by Wexford’s argument that the settlement agreement did not “directly relate” to its governmental function, holding instead that the connection was both “direct and obvious.” The Supreme Court ruled the settlement agreement was disclosable, and remanded the matter to the Circuit Court to review whether any portions of the settlement agreement should be redacted as exempt under various other provisions of FOIA. This case serves as a reminder to public bodies that settlement agreements are broadly construed to be disclosable under FOIA, regardless of whether the agreement was entered with a private contractor so long as the contractor was performing a governmental function.