Public Access Opinion 23-007

Failing to Provide Employee Names/Email Addresses in FOIA Request Insufficient to be “Unduly Burdensome"

Freedom of Information Act - FOIA
Case: Public Access Opinion 23-007
Date: Friday, May 26, 2023

On February 16, 2023, Requestor submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development (Department) seeking “all emails, sent or received by [the Department], or circulated internally to the Department, in calendar year 2021, emails all or in part regarding the City-owned property at 6435-6445 N California Ave, commonly known as the former Northtown branch of the Chicago Public Library, and all emails containing any of the following keywords …”

The Department responded that the Requestor must provide (1) the name or email address of the employee, (2) the timeframe for the email search, and (3) any specific keywords for the search. The Department noted that failing to provide all of the search parameters would require reviewing all emails to determine whether they are relevant to the request, which would be unduly burdensome.

Section 3(g) of FOIA states that public bodies must comply with requests for all records within a category unless compliance would be unduly burdensome. If compliance is unduly burdensome, the public body must specify the reasons why compliance would be unduly burdensome and the extent to which compliance would burden the operations of the public body.

On review, the Public Access Counselor (PAC) noted that Requestor had only failed to provide the names/email addresses of employees. Since a public body is typically in a better position than a member of the public to know the names and email addresses of public employees who would have records relating to particular subjects and FOIA only requires that a request reasonably identify a public record, the PAC held that simply failing to provide names/email addresses of specific employees is insufficient to be unduly burdensome. Rather than searching every account, public bodies must make judgment calls about the appropriate personnel to consult.

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

Michelle Yang, IASB Law Clerk