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Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Fourth District Interprets FOIA Attorneys' Fee Provision

In response to a three-part FOIA request submitted to a City in January 2020, the City responded two weeks later that it did not possess responsive records to part 1 of the request, that part 2 was unduly burdensome, and that part 3 was “vague and ambiguous.” In response, the requestor asked to confer with the City to reduce his allegedly burdensome request to manageable proportions and requested the City to perform another search for responsive records. Several weeks later, the City produced one record responsive to part 2 of the request. 

The requestor filed a lawsuit against the City alleging that the City (1) violated FOIA by failing to timely produce non-exempt public records to his request, (2) failed to perform an adequate search for responsive records, and (3) willfully, intentionally, or otherwise in bad faith violated FOIA. After the lawsuit was filed, the City agreed to conduct an additional search and produced certain records to the requestor. The trial court ruled in favor of the City finding that the City performed an adequate search for requested records, that the City properly classified part 2 as burdensome and the request failed to reasonably identify records sought for part 3, and that the City did not willfully or intentionally violate FOIA or otherwise act in bad faith in responding to the request.

On appeal, the Fourth District Appellate Court in Martinez v. City of Springfield determined that the trial court erred when it failed to award attorneys fees to the requestor under FOIA section 11(i). The Fourth District held that the requestor “prevailed” in its FOIA lawsuit because the City produced the requested records after the lawsuit was filed. The Court agreed with the requestor that a court order is not a prerequisite to an award of attorney fees under FOIA. Since the City failed to comply with the statutory deadline and only produced responsive records after the lawsuit was filed, the Court remanded the case back to the trial court to hear arguments on the reasonableness of requested attorney fees.

The Fourth District acknowledged that there is some disagreement among the Appellate Districts on the issue of when a plaintiff has "prevailed" in a FOIA lawsuit to trigger the attorneys' fee provision of FOIA. The Fourth District noted that the Second District holds that a plaintiff is entitled to attorneys' fees under 11(i) only if there is a court order in the plaintiff's favor in the FOIA lawsuit. So, if the requested records are provided while the FOIA lawsuit is pending, a plaintiff cannot have "prevailed" in that lawsuit for purposes of an attorneys' fee award under Section 11(i), at least not in the Second District. On the other hand, the First and Fifth Districts hold that the attorneys' fee provision of FOIA can be triggered even without a court order, meaning a plaintiff could have "prevailed" in his or her FOIA lawsuit even if the public body provides the records while litigation is pending. In this case, the Fourth District joined the First and Fifth Districts, holding that a court order is not required for a plaintiff to "prevail." 

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov and Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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