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Thursday, December 29, 2022

Court Rejects Attorneys Fees Where Public Body Disclosed Records in Litigation

In August 2020, an inmate submitted a FOIA request to a municipality seeking numerous records. In response, the City disclosed certain records, and withheld others asserting several FOIA exemptions, including FOIA exemption 7(1)(e-10), which exempts the following:

Law enforcement records of other persons requested by a person committed to the Department of Corrections, Department of Human   Services Division of Mental Health, or a county jail, including, but not limited to, arrest and booking records, mug shots, and crime scene photographs, except as these records may be relevant to the requester's current or potential case or claim. 

After the inmate sued the City alleging that it improperly denied the FOIA request, the City voluntarily provided the inmate with some of the requested records during the pendency of the lawsuit, but continued withholding certain records allegedly exempt pursuant to FOIA exemption 7(1)(e-10). 

Although the trial court agreed that the City properly withheld some of the requested records using exemption 7(1)(e-10), the court awarded attorney fees to the inmate, finding that the inmate “prevailed” within the meaning of FOIA section 11(i) because the City voluntarily disclosed certain records to the inmate during the lawsuit. 

On appeal, the Fourth District Appellate Court in Donley v. City of Springfield reversed the trial court, holding that the inmate was not entitled to attorney fees in this case. Although the Appellate Court had previously acknowledged that a FOIA litigant can “prevail” without a court order if a public body voluntarily discloses documents mid-litigation, the Court did not find that the inmate prevailed in this case because the documents disclosed to the inmate mid-litigation were properly classified as exempt and withheld by the City at the time the City received the FOIA request. Only after the inmate filed their lawsuit was the City on notice that the cited FOIA exemption did not apply because the withheld records only then became relevant to the requestor’s current or potential case or claim against the City. 

The Appellate Court concluded that “prevailing” under FOIA requires more than just (1) the filing of a lawsuit against the public body and (2) the public body disclosing the records. Instead, prevail also requires that the lawsuit (1) caused the disclosure of the records and (2) was reasonably necessary to obtain the requested records. 

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov, Ancel Glink


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