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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Illinois Supreme Court Upholds Settlement Agreement Disclosure under FOIA

Last month, the Illinois Supreme Court held in Rushton v. Department of Corrections, 2019 IL 124552, that a settlement agreement between a private healthcare provider who contracted with the state to provide medical services to prison inmates and the estate of an inmate who died is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

A journalist for the Illinois Times filed a FOIA request with the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) seeking settlement agreements involving the death of a former inmate at Taylorville Correctional Center, including those that involved private entities who were charged with providing health care to the decedent; one being Wexford Health Sources, Inc. Wexford contracts with the DOC to provide medical care to inmates. The DOC obtained a redacted version of the agreement from Wexford, and the DOC provided it to the requester.

The journalist and the Illinois Times filed a complaint against the DOC seeking an unredacted copy of the settlement agreement. The trial court ruled in favor of Wexford, holding that the agreement was  not a public record because it was not “directly related” to the private company's provision of medical services for the DOC under Section 7(2) of FOIA. The trial court did not rule on the issue of whether any of the redactions in the agreement were proper. The requesters appealed and the appellate court reversed in their favor, finding that the agreement was a public record because it “directly related” to the governmental function that it performed for the DOC because it involved the settling of a claim arising out of its rendering of medical care. Wexford then appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court held that the agreement was subject to disclosure under FOIA. First, the Court found that Section 2.20 of FOIA expressly provides for the release of settlement agreements involving private entities. The Court reasoned that the legislature’s enactment of Section 2.20 was intended as a clarification for public bodies that settlement agreements are public records subject to disclosure. Next, the Court analyzed whether Wexford had contracted with the DOC to perform a governmental function on its behalf and, if so, whether the requested settlement agreement directly related to that governmental function. The Court determined that since the State has a constitutional and statutory duty to provide healthcare to inmates, and that the DOC contracted with Wexford to perform this governmental function on its behalf, the Court found that the settlement agreement “directly related” to the performance of the governmental function of rendering medical care to inmates, such as the decedent, and is subject to disclosure under Section 7(2) of FOIA. In other words, Wexford “stood in the shoes of the DOC” when it rendered medical care to the decedent.

This case provides guidance to local governments and its private contractors that perform services related to a governmental function, that settlement agreements may not be shielded from public inspection because of the presumption of openness under FOIA. Nonetheless, local governments should be diligent in reviewing the agreements and redacting them as necessary.

Post Authored by Ashton Tunk & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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