Public Access Opinion 18-013

Improper Denial of Request as Unduly Burdensome

Freedom of Information Act - FOIA
Case: Public Access Opinion 18-013
Date: Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Office of the Governor (Governor’s Office) violated FOIA by improperly denying a request as unduly burdensome. On July 12, 2018, the Requestor submitted a FOIA request seeking any emails sent by or to certain identified individuals pertaining to nominations for appointment to any of 14 Illinois public bodies. The Requestor also asked for documents prepared by or in the possession of the identified individuals pertaining to such nominations, but limited the scope of the request to January 1, 2016 through June 30, 2018. On July 19, 2018, the Governor’s Office responded that the FOIA request was unduly burdensome pursuant to Section 3(g) of FOIA because it was “overbroad and vague” because documents could be “directly or indirectly related to a nomination for a board appointment without mentioning the board or potential appointee by name.” The Governor’s Office gave the Requestor an opportunity to narrow his request. On July 20, 2018, the Requestor narrowed his request and stated he was willing to work out a reasonable timeline for production of the request. The Governor’s Office still denied the FOIA request as unduly burdensome, stating its preliminary search yielded more than 44,000 potentially responsive emails and that a manual review of the emails would be necessary to respond to the FOIA request.

Upon review, the PAC first analyzed and rejected the Governor’s Office’s contention that the Requestor’s initial FOIA request was “overbroad and vague.” The PAC found that “a requestor needs only to identify the records being requested by describing their contents” and that FOIA did not require the Requestor to furnish the Governor’s Office with search terms to locate the requested records. Because the FOIA request specifically identified both the individuals who sent/received the emails and the subject matter of them, it reasonably identified the public records sought and was not impermissibly vague or overbroad.

Next, the PAC reviewed the Governor’s Office’s preliminary email search, and found it was not limited in any way to the board appointments. The Governor’s Office explained that it could not further limit its preliminary email search because adding other terms would exclude many relevant emails. However, it turns out that the Governor’s Office did try a more limited search which yielded only 1,783 emails. The Governor’s Office explained that it did not tell the Requestor about the more limited search results because even sifting through those results would be unduly burdensome. The PAC held that the Governor’s Office had not demonstrated how reviewing 1,783 potentially responsive emails would be unduly burdensome, let alone how any potential burden would outweigh the significant public interest in the records. The PAC ordered the Governor’s Office to provide the Requestor with copies of the responsive emails, subject to appropriate redactions under Section 7 of FOIA.

This opinion is binding only to the parties involved and may be appealed pursuant to State law.