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Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Court Finds FOIA and OMA Lawsuit Challenging Closed Session Was Properly Dismissed

An Illinois Appellate Court recently ruled in favor of a public body in a lawsuit claiming the public body violated the Open Meetings Act and FOIA relating to a closed session. Pal v. City of Elmhurst, 2022 IL App (2d) 210048-U.

On June 15, 2020, a City Council went into closed session to discuss the pending retirement of a City director and whether to fill the soon-to-be vacant position. After that meeting, the City mistakenly posted the closed session minutes from that meeting on the City's website, and plaintiff was able to download those minutes. The plaintiff then filed a request for review with the Illinois Public Access Counselor (PAC) and also filed a lawsuit against the City, claiming the City Council violated the OMA when it went into closed session at the June meeting. The lawsuit also included three counts claiming FOIA violations by the City. The PAC did not take action on the request for review since a lawsuit had been filed.

The City filed various defenses to the complaint, as well as a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The City argued, among other things, that the minutes of the closed session remained confidential under state statute because the City Council had not yet detemined that they should be released to the public. The City also argued that it did not violate the OMA when it went into closed session at the June meeting.

The trial court listened to the recording of the closed session and determined that the City Council's discussions in closed session did not violate the Open Meetings Act (count I). The court also dismissed counts II, III, and IV, which alleged FOIA violations, finding that they were dependent on finding that the city council violated the OMA. The plaintiff then appealed.

On appeal, plaintiff argued that the Judge had erred in dismissing his OMA and FOIA claims. He argued that the City Council's "generalized discussions" about the City's hiring freeze prior to discussing filling the soon-to-be vacant director position was not allowed to take place in closed session. Relying on a presumption that the trial court's order had a sufficient factual basis and that the Judge had listened to the recording, the Appellate Court found no error in the Judge's dismissal of the plaintiff's OMA claim, as well as the FOIA claims that were dependent on the OMA claim. The Appellate Court also rejected the City's argument that the plaintiff invaded the City's "privilege" in the minutes of closed sessions, finding that argument moot due to the dismissal of all counts in the lawsuit. 


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