Public Access Opinion 22-005

Records of Complaints Against Public Employees Subject to Disclosure

Freedom of Information Act - FOIA
Case: Public Access Opinion 22-005
Date: Thursday, March 24, 2022

On November 8, 2021, Requestor, on behalf of CBS Chicago, requested from the City of Chicago’s Department of Human Resources (1) disciplinary records for a specific City employee, (2) records of any complaints of racism, discrimination, or harassment made against that employee, and (3) records of any complaints of racism, discrimination or harassment filed in the past 5 years against City employees who worked at a specific Streets and Sanitation Facility.  The City provided records in response to the first request but denied the second and third requests in their entirety on two bases. First, the City claimed the responsive records were exempt from disclosure under Section 7(1)(c), because they contained personal information that if disclosed, would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy. The City claimed that the privacy rights of the complainants outweighed the public interest in the records, and it claimed that if the records were released, complainants would be less likely to come forward. Second, the City claimed the records were exempt under Section 7(1)(f) because they contained pre-decisional and deliberative material.
Regarding Section 7(1)(c), the PAC concluded that the responsive records must be disclosed because it was not an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy under Section 7(1)(c) to disclose information that bears on the duties of public employees, even if doing so would discourage the filing of future complaints. Additionally, the PAC found the public’s interest in knowing about the extent of discrimination that may exist in a taxpayer-funded department (even if ultimately unfounded) outweighed the complainant’s privacy interests. However, to protect individuals’ privacy, the PAC stated that the identifying information of complainants, witnesses, and third parties mentioned in the records, as well those portions of the complaints that included graphic or salacious details or details about the complainant’s families or private lives could be redacted.
The PAC also rejected the City’s reliance on the exemption in Section 7(1)(f), noting it only exempts from disclosure records “in which opinions are expressed, or policies or action are formulated.”  Here, the PAC concluded that while the complaints are preliminary in nature, they did not reflect any decision-making process by the City; they were limited to factual information and allegations.
This opinion is binding only to the parties involved and may be appealed pursuant to State law.