Records Containing Only Facts Are Not Subject to Section 7(1)(f) Predecisional Exemption
Recently, an Illinois Court of Appeals issued a decision mandating disclosure of assessment records from the Cook County Assessor’s Office to the Chicago Tribune under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”).
In this case, Chicago Tribune Company v. Cook County Assessor’s Office, the Tribune requested records from the Cook County Assessor’s Office related to the valuation of residential, commercial, and industrial property within Cook County. Specifically, the Tribune sought spreadsheets used in the assessment of such properties and in determining property valuation for purposes of taxation. The Assessor denied the request, arguing the information was exempt under section 7(1)(f) of FOIA, which exempts from disclosure any preliminary drafts or notes of a public body in which opinions are expressed or actions are formulated—often referred to as the “pre-decisional” exemption.
The Assessor argued that the requested records were exempt under this section because they amounted to the Assessor’s “opinions of value” and were thus draft opinions. The Assessor further argued that these records should be withheld because, if released, they would give the Tribune insight to scrutinize the Assessor’s deliberations and opinions. Conversely, the Tribune argued that the records did not contain opinions, only factual data. The trial court ruled in favor of the Tribune and found the documents were not subject to the deliberative process exemption.
On appeal, an Illinois appellate court affirmed the lower court—holding that the documents were not exempt under section 7(1)(f). The appellate court found the documents were final, not preliminary. The court also held that the reports contained only facts, instead of opinions, and thus did not relate to debate or deliberation. In response to the Assessor’s “insight” argument, the court agreed that the decision-making process likely could be determined from the records, but ultimately the documents contained only facts. What a sophisticated requester could glean from the records was not relevant to the exemption analysis.