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Thursday, May 30, 2013

FOIA Requires Release of Records in "Unlocked" Format

Plaintiff Fagel had filed a FOIA request with IDOT for records relating to IDOT's red light camera enforcement system.  Although IDOT provided the requested information in an electronic Excel file as requested, the Excel file was "locked" so the data could be viewed but not highlighted, selected, sorted, filtered, or otherwise manipulated.  Fagel then filed a complaint with the Public Access Counselor, who issued a non-binding opinion in favor of IDOT finding that it had complied with FOIA.  Specifically, the PAC opinion stated that "FOIA does not ensure that a requester can obtain information in an electronic format that he or she can manipulate, but only that the requester will receive the information in an electronic format." 
Shortly thereafter, Fagel filed a complaint in the circuit court, claiming that IDOT had not provided the records in the format requested.  Fagel alleged that IDOT must provide the record in the format maintained by IDOT, with all metadata and other hidden formulas and references.  The circuit court ruled in favor of Fagel, finding that the statute requires production of the public record in the same format in which it is maintained- in this case, an unlocked Excel spreadsheet.  The circuit court also awarded attorneys fees to Fagel in the amount of $12,561.25.  IDOT appealed.
In Fagel v. Department of Transportation, the appellate court ruled in favor of Fagel, affirming the circuit court's ruling.  First, the appellate court noted that because the PAC opinion was non-binding, it was not subject to administrative review.  Second, the appellate court rejected IDOT's argument that it fully complied with FOIA by providing an electronic version of the records as requested.  The court interpreted FOIA to require a public body to provide the records in the exact format maintained by the public body.  The court acknowledged IDOT's concerns about manipulation or misuse of the records, but noted that FOIA contains no exemption that would address this concern and left it to the legislature to address that issue.  Finally, the court upheld the attorneys fee award. 
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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