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Friday, December 16, 2022

Public Body Did Not Violate FOIA Where Request Went to Wrong Public Body

We have seen a lot of FOIA cases coming out of the Illinois Appellate Courts that we will be reporting on over the next few weeks. In today's post, an Illinois Appellate Court upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by an inmate challenging the denial of his FOIA request, finding that the inmate filed his request with the wrong public body. Foote v. Winnebago County Sheriff.

The inmate had filed a FOIA request with the Winnebago County Sheriff's Office seeking copies of various contracts between Winnebago County and prison venders, as well as records pertaining to the provision of medical services to inmates. Foote filed suit after he failed to receive a response from the Sheriff's Office. The circuit court dismissed his lawsuit, finding that he had filed his request with the wrong public body and, therefore, the Sheriff's Office did not violate FOIA.

On appeal, the Appellate Court first noted that since FOIA does not require a public body to compile records it does not ordinarily keep, the failure of that public body to turn over documents that are not in existence or not under its control does not constitute a violation of FOIA. The Appellate Court upheld the circuit court's ruling that it could take judicial notice of which records a public body would ordinarily keep or have in its possession. The Court also noted that the inmate knew or should have know that the records it requested would be held by Winnebago County or the Illinois College of Medicine, and not the Sheriff's Office. Finally, the Appellate Court rejected the inmate's request for civil penalties, finding that he did not prevail in his FOIA lawsuit and the Sheriff's Office did not willfully or intentionally refuse to comply with FOIA.

This is an interesting case for a few reasons. 

First, the Appellate Court held in this case that a public body did not have to respond to a FOIA request where the records being requested were not records kept or possessed by the public body. Best practices (both for record-keeping purposes and in case of a challenge) would be for a public body to respond to all FOIA requests, even if the response simply states that the public body has "no responsive public records." The Appellate Court even acknowledged that best practice in its opinion, as follows:

Although it would behoove the Sheriff’s Office to nonetheless respond to such requests with a simple “we do not keep those records,” based on Foote’s amended complaint, in the light most favorable to Foote, he failed to plead a cause of action for which relief could be granted.

Second, the Court appeared to find that Winnebago County and the Winnebago County Sheriff's Office were two distinct public bodies for purposes of FOIA. 

Third, the circuit court had dismissed the individual employees of the Sheriff's Office who had been named as defendants in Foote's lawsuit, holding that FOIA does not provide a statutory basis for suing individuals in FOIA challenges (this issue was not appealed).


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