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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Individual Data Fields in Electronic Database Subject to FOIA

A recent Illinois appellate court decision provides a detailed analysis of the type of electronic data maintained in a government database that a court will consider a "public record" subject to FOIA. The case also provides insight into the distinction between "searching" a database for a requested record (which is required under FOIA) and the "creation of new records" in response to a FOIA request (which is not required under FOIA).  Hites v. Waubonsee Community College, 2016 IL App (2d) 150836.

Daniel Hites submitted a FOIA request in February, 2011 to Waubonsee Community College (WCC) requesting various information relating to student registration at the college. His FOIA request included the following (among others):
#1-3. Zip codes of persons taking the NSC's Defensive Driving Course, GED classes, and ESL classes
#4. Total number of registered students without social security numbers
#5-8. Raw input for the "city", "county code", "U.S. Citizen" and "Non-resident alien" fields on student registration forms
#9-13. The total number of registered students at the Aurora campus, taking ESL classes, taking ABE/GED classes in years 1996-2008, the total number of registered students from 1995 to present at current locations and total number of out of district students in fall of 2011 at the Aurora campus
The WCC responded to Hites' FOIA request as follows: "The college does not aggregate this information as there is no purpose for the college to do so. Therefore, there is no responsive document to your request." Hites sued, and the circuit court dismissed his complaint, ruling in WCC's favor. Hites appealed.

The appellate court examined the following 2 issues on appeal: 

(1)  whether the data on WCC's databases constitutes public records under FOIA; and 
(2)  whether Hites' FOIA requests required WCC to create new records.

With respect to the first issue, the appellate court held that the data on WCC's databases does constitute public records under FOIA. Because the database itself is a public record, the court held that the individual data points and data fields within that database are also public records. The court relied on federal cases interpreting the federal FOIA, as well as the definition of the Illinois FOIA that expressly applies to electronic records.

With respect to the second issue, the appellate court distinguished between the search and compilation of records (a public body's obligation under FOIA) and the creation of new records (which is not required under FOIA). If the public body has to produce a listing or index of the database results, that would constitute the creation of a new record that is not required under FOIA. Also, if the public body is asked to respond to questions about the data or perform research in response to a FOIA request, that is not required under FOIA. However, searching and producing data stored in a database is within a public body's duty to respond to a FOIA request, even if the public body has to write a program or code to extract the information. 

Applying this analysis to Hites' 13 FOIA requests, the appellate court ordered the WCC to provide records in response to requests for data input into the WCC's database from student registration forms - zip codes (#1-3), and the city, county code, U.S. citizen, and non-resident alien fields (#4, 9-13). The court held that the extraction of these data fields from WCC's database was not the creation of a new record, so WCC was obligated to provide these records.  

On requests 4-8, however, the court found in favor of WCC, The court noted that Hites' request that WCC provide "tallies" of the number of students falling into certain identified categories "improperly required WCC to create new records [and] went beyond a search for records - that is, the data in the databases - and instead improperly sought information about these records." The court acknowledged that it was the form of Hites' request that was problematic, since he could have requested the underlying records rather than asking for a tally. The court also noted that nothing precluded WCC from providing the tally if it chose to, which would likely be easier for WCC to provide than searching and compiling the underlying records, should Hites modify his request.

Public bodies that receive requests for categories of data stored in electronic databases will need to carefully review these requests to determine whether they seek "individual data points" within a database, which requires the public body to search and extract the data, as opposed to asking the public body to create a new record that does not already exist (an index) or to answer questions about public records (a tally, total number), neither of which is required under FOIA.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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