Reviewing 28,000 Pages is Not an Unduly Burdensome FOIA Request
The Illinois Appellate Court for the 1st District (Court) considered an appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County (Circuit Court) and found that reviewing 28,000 pages of documents potentially responsive to a FOIA request is not unduly burdensome.
On October 12, 2018, Plaintiff Tyrone Greer (Plaintiff) sent a FOIA request to the Board of Education of the City of Chicago (Board) for: 1) all documents from 1999-2005 from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) dealing with any complaint by Plaintiff for racial discrimination, 2) any information for the same years “sent to and received from the EEOC, any judge, internal administrative department, and individuals with administrative powers” concerning Plaintiff dealing with any charge of racial discrimination, and 3) “any decision, censorship, conclusion, and warning that came from the EEOC, any administrative judge, and a legitimate court system” concerning any complaints dealing with Plaintiff and the Board. On October 30, 2018, the FOIA Officer for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) responded by identifying four case numbers of “potentially responsive cases” and stated CPS had eight boxes for the cases, holding up to 28,000 pages. The FOIA Officer claimed CPS would need to review each page to identify any responsive records and to redact any information exempt under FOIA, so she asked Plaintiff to narrow his FOIA request. Plaintiff did not narrow his request. On November 16, 2018, the Board denied Plaintiff’s request as unduly burdensome under Section 3(g) of FOIA, which provides that “requests calling for all records falling
within a category shall be complied with unless compliance with the request would be unduly burdensome for the complying public body and there is no way to narrow the request and the burden on the public body outweighs the public interest in the information.”
Plaintiff then filed a complaint against the Board in Circuit Court. The Board filed a motion for summary judgment and, in support, the FOIA Officer filed a statement asserting that CPS would need to review and redact up to 28,000 sheets of paper which could take up to 86 business days. The Circuit Court granted the Board’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiff’s request was unduly burdensome, and Plaintiff appealed.
Looking to Section 1.2 of FOIA, the appellate Court noted that “any public body asserting that an exemption covers a requested disclosure ‘has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that it is exempt.’” It further noted that when a government agency claims a FOIA request is “unduly burdensome,” the agency implies it will “face a great burden identifying responsive documents” but that this case “involves no such difficulty.” Instead, the Court stated that “a glance at the head of each document should quickly determine whether the exemption applied.” The Court also reasoned that the public has a substantial interest in allegations of racial discrimination by public bodies and the Board’s response to such allegations, even if they only pertain to a single employee, and so the alleged undue burden did not outweigh public interest in the information. The Court sent the matter back to the Circuit Court and ordered the Board to examine the eight boxes to identify documents for which it will raise exemption or privilege.