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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Court Finds in Favor of Department of Corrections in FOIA Challenge

An inmate filed six FOIA requests with the Illinois Department of Corrections (Department) seeking Department records, policies, and copies of the Department’s prior denials of the inmate’s FOIA requests. The Department rejected some of the inmate’s FOIA requests for failing to identify responsive public records and withheld other requested records under various FOIA exemptions.

The inmate sought review of the Department’s denials with the Public Access Counselor of the Attorney General’s office (PAC). The PAC determined that no further inquiry was warranted and closed the file. The inmate then filed a lawsuit against the Department alleging it violated FOIA by improperly denying his requests and witholding responsive public records. The circuit court dismissed the inmate’s lawsuit finding his FOIA requests either failed to properly identify public records, or other portions were properly denied by the Department.

On appeal, the Appellate Court in Warren v. Dep’t of Corr. upheld the circuit court’s ruling in favor of the Department. 

First, the Appellate Court determined that the Department proved it did not possess records pertaining to surveillance footage protocols or temperature monitoring by submitting affidavits from the Department’s assistant legal counsel that such records did not exist. The Appellate Court emphasized that FOIA does not create an independent requirement for governmental bodies to maintain public records, and the nonexistence of requested records is an affirmative defense.

Second, the Appellate Court determined the Department’s denial of the inmate’s request for general information on the Department’s grievance policies and information about a prescription drug banned by the Department was permitted because the request failed to identify a specific public record. The Appellate Court also found that the Department properly withheld building inspection records and health, sanitation, and safety reports as these records were prepared for internal audit purposes and exempt from disclosure under FOIA (section 7(1)(m)). 

Finally, the Appellate Court upheld the Department’s denial of the inmate’s request for copies of his previous FOIA requests denied by the Department under FOIA’s "repeated request" exemption (section 3(g)). The Court held that that Department did not have to provide the inmate with copies of records already provided to him or previously denied as doing so would be unduly burdensome to the Department.

Post Authored by Tyler Smith & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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