In Greer v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, an Illinois appellate court found that the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had not demonstrated that it appropriately denied a FOIA request as unduly burdensome.

In 2018, Greer submitted a FOIA request to CPS seeking documents concerning his complaint of racial discrimination against CPS. In response, CPS’s FOIA officer identified eight banker’s boxes of documents estimated to contain approximately 28,000 pages that were potentially responsive to the FOIA request. CPS asked that the requester narrow his request, but he repeated the same request. CPS thus denied the FOIA request as unduly burdensome. The requester filed a complaint against CPS, and CPS responded by stating that the request was properly denied as unduly burdensome because 28,000 pages of documents may take up to 86 business days to review.

The appellate court noted that any public body claiming an exemption under FOIA has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the exemption is applicable. By claiming a request is unduly burdensome, a government agency implies that it will face a great burden identifying the documents. Here, the court pointed out that CPS identified the eight boxes of documents and cast serious doubt on CPS’s time estimate of 86 days to review the documents. Rather, the court stated that this estimate was unrealistic because documents covered by the attorney-client privilege could readily be identified and CPS did not explain why other documents would include any private information exempt from disclosure. Further, the court determined that the burden to the public body did not outweigh the public interest in information concerning racial discrimination. The case was sent back down to the trial court for further proceedings.

School districts should be aware when responding to FOIA requests that any exemptions afforded under FOIA are narrowly interpreted. In other words, school districts must be prepared to show, in detail, exactly why an exemption applies under FOIA. When making the determination that a FOIA request is unduly burdensome, the school district should be able to explain why the documents are difficult to identify and that the burden on the school district will outweigh the public interest in the information.

If you have any “undue burden” or other FOIA questions, please contact Kerry Pipal or any of our attorneys in the Board Governance/Corporate practice group.

Source: Greer v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, 2021 IL App. (1st) 200429