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In Hites v. Waubonsee Community College, 2018 IL App (2d) 170617, the Illinois Appellate Court held that a request for multiple forms of electronic data was not unduly burdensome.

In Hites, the plaintiff was a member of an oversight committee called Aurora Downtown and was the chairman of the Aurora “parking committee.”  He filed a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 ILCS 140/1 et seq.) with Waubonsee Community College, seeking, among other things, electronic data from Waubonsee Community College’s databases.  The purpose of the request was to get information about the students so that the Aurora Downtown oversight committee could determine how to “market” to the students and otherwise “orient” the Community College to help “reinvigorate” downtown Aurora.

Waubonsee Community College denied the plaintiff’s FOIA request for electronic data, explaining that the request was unduly burdensome.  After the denial, the plaintiff filed an action in the circuit court of Kane County seeking disclosure of the electronic data.

At an evidentiary hearing, the chief information officer of Waubonsee Community College testified that the college would need to write electronic programs to search the databases for the plaintiff’s requested information.  It would also need to write electronic programs to produce files that were responsive to the plaintiff’s requests.  The chief information officer also testified that writing such programs would take at least a week, because the requisite employees had “other responsibilities.”  The chief information officer further testified that creating the programs and complying with the request would result in the Community College absorbing overtime expenses.

Following the evidentiary hearing, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint.  The trial court found that the undue-burden exemption applied to the plaintiff’s FOIA requests for electronic data.  First, the trial court noted that Waubonsee Community College offered the plaintiff an opportunity to narrow his requests.  Second, the trial court noted that compliance with the requests would require over 150 hours or the equivalent of 20 personnel days.  Third, the trial court found that the burden of complying with the FOIA requests outweighed the public interest.

On appeal, the Illinois appellate court, second district, held that the undue-burden exemption did not apply to the plaintiff’s FOIA request for electronic data. Along those lines, the appellate court noted that the undue-burden exemption of FOIA exempts disclosure of records where (1) a request for all records falling within a category would be unduly burdensome for the complying public body; (2) there is no way to narrow the request; and (3) the burden on the public body outweighs the public interest in the information.  The public body that asserts the undue-burden exemption has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the requested information is exempt.

In holding that the undue-burden exemption did not apply to the plaintiff’s FOIA requests, the appellate court rejected the testimony of the chief information officer that complying with each request would take one week and that compliance with all seven requests would take 150 hours.  Instead, the appellate court determined that the chief information officer improperly “padded” the time estimates with time “that staff would spend performing other activities” that existed prior to and independent of the FOIA requests.  The appellate court instead determined that responding to each request would require eight hours of work, thus allowing the Community College to space the work out over a period of one week.

Furthermore, in rejecting the undue-burden exemption, the appellate court noted that Waubonsee Community College was not required to search databases out of its control.  While Waubonsee Community College may have had to write electronic programs to search for the requested data, all of the data could be “extracted” from the Community College’s own databases.  Importantly, extracting the data “did not involve any hand review or redaction.”  Nor was the extraction of data comparable to “physically reviewing over 9000 documents[.]”

Additionally, the appellate court noted that Waubonsee Community College failed to present any evidence to substantiate its claims that it would incur overtime expenses to comply with the plaintiff’s FOIA requests.

Finally, the appellate court determined that the public interest in learning how Waubonsee Community College benefits the community outweighed the burden on the Community College to extract the requested data.  Specifically, the purpose of the request was to determine whether Waubonsee Community College’s new Aurora campus was serving Aurora and its students.

Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint and remanded the matter to the trial court.

Contact Steve Richart or Kerry Pipal with your inquiries about the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.