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IL Appellate Court Upholds School District’s Use of “Unduly Burdensome” FOIA Exemption for “Fishing Expedition” Request

Higher Education K-12 Education

A recent Illinois Appellate Court decision provides welcome support to a school district or other public body faced with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that is more akin to a “fishing expedition” than a targeted request for documents. The case is a reminder of the importance of engaging in a good-faith dialogue with and providing detailed written responses to a requester when denying a request as unduly burdensome.

In Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law v. the Board of Education of the City of Chicago, the requester, a nonprofit legal and educational policy advocacy organization, made three requests to the school district seeking employee misconduct reports involving school-based police officers. The school district denied all three requests as unduly burdensome, and in the first two instances, the requester narrowed the requests. With respect to the final request, which sought all employee misconduct reports for the school district for one calendar year, the District explained in a written response to the requester that responding to the request would require hundreds of personnel hours to review over 600 responsive documents, many of which likely would not contain any information about police conduct.

The requester challenged the denial of the request as unduly burdensome, arguing that the school district had not proved, by clear and convincing evidence, that responding to the request would be unduly burdensome. Although the Appellate Court agreed that the unduly burdensome provision in the FOIA is an “exception” that requires support by clear and convincing evidence, it found that because the undue burden exception requires a good-faith dialogue with the requester, it is not always necessary for the public body to support its use of the exemption with affidavits, documents for confidential review, or other materials that might be necessary to support a denial under other FOIA exceptions. Instead, the pre-suit communications between the parties provided a written explanation for the use of the exception and gave the requesting party an opportunity to test the scope of that explanation by clarifying or narrowing its request. This detailed written response adequately showed that it would be an undue burden to respond to the requests.

The court also found that the burden of the request outweighed the public interest. Although the information the requester sought was important, the burden on the school district to review hundreds of records that were likely not even relevant outweighed the public’s interest in the documents.