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Illinois Supreme Court Holds Superintendent’s Contract Is Not Exempt From Disclosure Under FOIA

K-12 Education Publications

On May 21, 2009, the Illinois Supreme Court considered an issue of first impression for the Supreme Court: whether an employment contract is exempt from disclosure under Section 7(1)(b) of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). Stern v. Wheaton-Warrenville Comm. Unit Sch. Dist. 200.

Here, upon receiving a FOIA request for a copy of the superintendent’s contract, the school district argued that because the contract was located in the superintendent’s personnel file, it was per se exempt from disclosure because personnel files are exempt from disclosure under Section 7. In asserting this argument, the school district relied upon a previous Illinois Supreme Court decision, Lieber v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois Univ., 176 Ill. 2d 401 (1997), in which the Supreme Court held that where a public body can prove that a requested document falls within one of the exemptions listed under Section 7 of the FOIA, such information would be per se exempt from disclosure.

Although the school district prevailed at the trial court level, the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed. The Court held that employment contracts are not per se exempt from disclosure under the FOIA because they are not specifically listed under Section 7 of the Act. The Court further explained that a narrow inquiry should be made as to whether disclosure of the superintendent’s employment contract would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, along with the consideration that information that bears on the public duties of public officials shall not constitute an invasion of personal privacy. Considering these two factors, the Court held that a superintendent’s employment contract is not exempt from disclosure under the FOIA. The Court also noted that the fact that an employment contract — or any other document that bears on a public official’s public duties — might be located in a personnel file is “insufficient to insulate it from disclosure.”

Although the Stern decision makes clear that employment contracts must be released if requested under the FOIA, the Court indicated that there may be portions of an employment contract — such as an individual’s social security number or other personal information — that might be permissibly redacted under Section 7. It is also important to note that the Court’s decision did not speak to other personnel documents such as employee reviews. Accordingly, school districts that receive FOIA requests for employment contracts or other personnel information might consider working with legal counsel in responding to such requests.