A Public Body’s Decision to Withhold Documents is Evaluated at the Time the Body Responded to the Request
The Illinois Appellate Court for the 1st District (Court) considered an appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County (Circuit Court), and held that a public body’s decision to withhold documents in response to a FOIA request is evaluated at the time the body responds to the request.
On November 18, 2015, Charles Green (Plaintiff) sent a FOIA request to the Chicago Police Department (CPD) seeking “any and all closed complaint register [CR] files that related to Chicago Police Officers.” When CPD didn’t respond, Plaintiff sued in the Circuit Court, alleging that CPD violated FOIA by failing to produce the requested documents or otherwise respond to his FOIA request. CPD admitted it hadn’t responded to Plaintiff’s FOIA but argued that: 1) several documents or portions of documents were exempt from production because they contained private or personal information, and 2) CPD was barred from producing CR files over four years old due to an injunction issued in an unrelated case, which was in place at the time of Plaintiff’s FOIA request. CPD argued that Plaintiff was only entitled to the CR files that were not subject to the injunction – CR files dated after 2011. The Circuit Court ordered CPD to confer with Plaintiff to determine a schedule for production of the CR files dated from 2011-2015, since those weren’t subject to the injunction, and to produce the files by December 31, 2018. Meanwhile, the Circuit Court held that once the injunction was lifted, CPD could produce the 1967-2011 files to Plaintiff without Plaintiff needing to file another FOIA request. The Circuit Court ordered CPD to produce the 1967-2011 files by December 31, 2020, and CPD appealed.
The only issue on appeal was whether the Circuit Court had jurisdiction to order the production of the 1967-2011 records after it had determined that CPD didn’t improperly withhold them at the time they were requested (due to the injunction). Section 11 of FOIA allows any person who is denied access to public records to sue for relief, and subsection (d) gives the court “jurisdiction to enjoin the public body from withholding public records and to order the production of any public records improperly withheld from the person seeking access.” The Court reasoned that Section 11(d) means a court may only order the production of records that were “improperly withheld.” The Court determined it should evaluate CPD’s response to Plaintiff’s FOIA at the time the response was made – November 2015. At this time, the injunction was in place and CPD could not release the 1967-2011 files, so CPD’s decision was proper. The Court held that it was immaterial that the injunction was later vacated because “we evaluate the public body’s decision to withhold documents at the time the body responded to the request.” The Court reversed the Circuit Court’s order, finding CPD did not need to produce the 1967-2011 files.