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Certain Employee Discipline Records Exempt under FOIA

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July 2, 2018

By John Swinney and Brian Crowley 

An Illinois appellate court recently held that certain employee discipline records are exempt from FOIA disclosure under the Illinois Personnel Record Review Act (“Review Act”). 

In Johnson v. The Joliet Police Department, the city of Joliet received a FOIA request seeking information related to the disciplinary history of a Joliet Police Department employee. Under the Review Act, an employer is required to review and delete disciplinary records that are more than 4 years old before turning them over to a third party.  Citing this provision, the City informed the Requester that no such records exist from within the last 4 years. Requester, in turn, sued the City and argued that the Review Act did not apply to FOIA requests.

The trial court ruled in favor of the City, and the Requester appealed. The appellate court affirmed the decision of the trial court. First, the appellate court noted that the plain language of Section 7.5 of FOIA makes it clear that the “prohibitions found in the Review Act are applicable to FOIA requests.” Therefore, the court found that the requested records were exempt from disclosure under FOIA because of the Review Act. 

The court also distinguished citizen complaints (CRs) from disciplinary records. The court held that, while disciplinary records may be withheld from disclosure due to the requirements of the Review Act, citizen complaints are distinct from disciplinary records and may be disclosed under FOIA.

This decision is important for public sector employers in determining what disciplinary records may be disclosed pursuant to a FOIA request. It is now clear that the Review Act does, in fact, prohibit employers from disclosing disciplinary records more than 4 years old even pursuant to a FOIA request. Moreover, this case reiterates that citizen complaints are not part of an employee’s disciplinary record and are not subject to this FOIA exemption.

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