by Ericka J. Thomas (Summer 2019)
Under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (5 ILCS 140/1.1 et seq.), records in possession of public agencies may be accessed by the public upon written request. Over the years, FOIA has been refined and changed to address certain challenges and deficiencies and will most certainly continue to change and adapt as new issues and technological questions arise. In a recent Illinois federal case, the court considered how much transparency is too much.
In Munn v. City of Aurora, 2018 WL 1124424 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 1, 2018), an incarcerated felon sent a FOIA request to the City of Aurora seeking, among other things, the personnel files of numerous police officers who participated in the investigation that led to his conviction and incarceration. This inmate was serving an 88-year sentence and had strong ties to a violent street gang known as the “Latin Kings.”
The City of Aurora FOIA officer responded to the request and mailed the officers’ mostly unredacted personnel files to the correctional facility where the inmate was housed. The personnel files contained the officers’ home addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers, as well as information about their family members. The officers were unaware that this information had been released until approximately a year later. The City later conducted an audit of its FOIA procedures and discovered that this was not the first time that such personal information had been disclosed in response to a FOIA request.
In response to discovering that their personal information had been disclosed to a violent felon, the officers and their family members filed a lawsuit against the City of Aurora and the FOIA officer claiming that their civil rights had been violated. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that they were entitled to damages under a state-created danger theory, which allows for recovery when the affirmative action of a public body creates or increases danger to them, the public body fails to protect them from the danger, and the failure to protect shocks the conscience. Not surprisingly, the City and FOIA officer filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit claiming that the plaintiffs had not pleaded sufficient facts to establish the elements of their claims.
The defendants also argued that the case should be dismissed because none of the plaintiffs had been harmed by the inmate. The Court stated that this argument had no merit and equated the situation to the State throwing an individual into a snake pit. The Court stated that even if the snakes don’t harm the individual, but he is harmed trying to escape the pit, the danger was created by the state. In this case, the plaintiffs were harmed by having to install security systems and, in some cases, relocate.
The Court also rejected the defendants’ arguments that these police officers knew they were at risk for this type of danger when they became police officers. The court noted that the officers were not on duty when the alleged danger occurred and the City, essentially, helped the inmate take his first step towards harming the plaintiffs.
Ultimately, the Court determined that the plaintiffs had sufficiently pleaded elements to establish a state-created danger claim and a “Monell” claim against the City. A Monell claim involves liability for constitutional injury. In denying the motion to dismiss, the Court allowed the case to proceed to discovery and then, possibly, to trial.
Although school districts are obligated to respond to FOIA requests quickly, it is important that the FOIA officer be well-versed in what information should and should not be disclosed. Under FOIA, personal information is exempt from disclosure. (5 ILCS 140/7)) While the release of personal information about school district employees may not create the risk of danger that existed in the Munn case, that situation exhibits how quick and unthinking compliance with FOIA requests can not only cause violations of FOIA but can also cause legal liability for the public body. When in doubt, contact your counsel for a review of your school district’s FOIA response.