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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Court Questions Claim that Review of 28,000 Records is Unduly Burdensome in FOIA Case

In 2018, a requestor submitted a FOIA request to the Chicago Board of Education seeking documents related to the requestor’s racial discrimination claims made between 1999 and 2005. After identifying approximately 28,000 pages of records that would need to be reviewed for potential exemptions, the Board asked the requestor to narrow his request, which is permitted by FOIA. When the requestor refused, the Board denied the FOIA request as unduly burdensome. The requester sued, and the circuit court ruled in favor of the Board. The requestor then appealed.  

In Greer v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, the First District Appellate Court reversed the ruling in favor of the Board, finding that the "unduly burdensome" exemption was not grounds for summary judgment because there were issues of material fact regarding whether the requestor’s request was unduly burdensome. Since the Board had already identified records that were apparently responsive to the FOIA request, the appellate court noted that the Board would not face a great burden identifying responsive records. The appellate court also questioned the Board’s assertion that redacting exempt information would take 86 days. The appellate court also disagreed with the Board’s claim that its burden of reviewing the 28,000 records outweighed the public’s interest in the requestor’s racial discrimination claims, noting that allegations of racial discrimination by public bodies, even those pertaining to a single employee, inherently constitutes a matter of public concern in which the public has a substantial interest. 

Because there were issues of material fact that left room for doubt on the Board's claim that it would be unduly burdensome to review 28,000 records, the court reversed the circuit court's ruling and sent the case back to the circuit court, ordering the Board to examine the 28,000 responsive documents to identify those that might be exempt.

This case is concerning to public bodies on what constitutes "unduly burdensome" - if reviewing 28,000 records for applicable exemptions and redactions isn't unduly burdensome, it makes you wonder what is. Many readers know we have reported on a number of "unduly burdensome" cases and PAC opinions in the past, and this case may just be an outlier. Public bodies should make sure they provide an estimate of the number of records that would require review in the initial response to a requester asking the requester to narrow the request and estimate the manpower necessary to tackle that review - although that didn't seem to make a difference in this case, it has been relevant in other cases and PAC opinions on the "unduly burdensome" issue.

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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