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Court cannot consider reason for public records request

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   ILLINOIS   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Dec. 7, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   ILLINOIS   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Dec. 7, 2005

Court cannot consider reason for public records request

  • A trial court erred when it denied the release of city employment records based on assumptions as to how the requester might use the information, an appellate panel ruled.

Dec. 7, 2005  ·   A trial court wrongly dismissed a complaint from a legal assistant who sought city employment records, incorrectly reasoning that the requester was using open records law to get information to help bolster a pending lawsuit, an Illinois appellate court ruled.

The “relevant question is not whether the information is discoverable in litigation, but rather whether the information requested is exempted from disclosure under the [Illinois Freedom of Information] Act,” Judge James Knecht wrote Nov. 28 for a unanimous three-judge panel of the Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield, Ill.

The city of Springfield had denied the initial request for its Equal Employment Opportunity records, citing the privacy exemption to the open records law. The requester sued, but Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Leslie J. Graves dismissed the complaint based on federal litigation against the city, not on whether the exemption used was valid, the appellate court ruled.

“The information sought in this case does not identify any current or former city employees by both name and race,” Knecht wrote, in rejecting the privacy exemption argument. “The requested documents show the number of employees in each department by race, gender, salary level, and department. Nobody is identified by name.”

The appellate court sent the case back to Sangamon County Circuit Court instructing it that the burden rests on the city to adequately support the privacy exemption used in a denial.

The requester’s employer, attorney Courtney Cox, is involved with three pending race discrimination lawsuits in Springfield. A federal magistrate judge limited Cox’s discovery in one of the cases to racial data regarding police department employees and no other city employees, according to the opinion.

But “the federal court’s discovery order has no bearing on whether the information is exempt from disclosure under the Act,” Knecht wrote.

Cox pursued this appeal even after obtaining some of the employment information from another source, but continued the lawsuit because he disagreed with the reasoning behind the city’s denial.

This decision provides ammunition for people looking to obtain information under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, Cox said.

“They assumed I wanted the information for the litigation, but that wasn’t the case at all,” Cox told The Southern Illinoisan. “They [city officials] can’t ask you why you want certain information and then pick and choose who they give information based on the reason.”

(Carson v. Davlin; Media counsel: Courtney Cox, Hart & Hart, Benton, Ill.)MM

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