Illinois Appellate Court Narrows the Scope of FOIA Exemption

On April 18, 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court held that the City of Peoria failed to prove that a certain police report was exempt from disclosure under FOIA, thus narrowing further the scope of FOIA exemptions.

In Peoria Journal Star v. City of Peoria, 2016 IL App (3d) 140838, the Peoria Journal Star and Matt Buedel, a crime reporter for the paper, filed a request pursuant to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) seeking from the city all special reports prepared by a sergeant of the Peoria Police Department in 2013. The department provided one report, but refused to disclose the second. According to the city, the withheld report was related to “an employee grievance and served as the factual basis which initiated two internal disciplinary cases against two officers of the Peoria Police Department.” The city argued that (1) the report was created in the course of an administrative enforcement proceeding and its release would have interfered with a pending law enforcement proceeding and (2) the report related to a public body’s adjudication of employee grievances or disciplinary cases.

In determining that the report was not exempt from the FOIA request, the court focused on the exemption that precludes disclosure of “[r]ecords relating to a public body’s adjudication of employee grievances or disciplinary cases.” The court’s determination hinged on its interpretation of the word “adjudication.” Specifically, the court noted that a complaint or grievance is part of an investigatory process that is separate and distinct from a disciplinary adjudication. In this case, even though the report ultimately led to a disciplinary adjudication, it was created as part of the investigatory process well before the time of adjudication. Thus, the fact that the report later led to disciplinary action against two officers was insufficient to make it exempt under FOIA.

This decision significantly narrows the scope of the FOIA exemption for the disclosure of employee grievance and disciplinary documents created or compiled in the course of an investigation.

Please contact Steve Richart or Jeff Goelitz with questions on the impact this ruling may have on how your district responds to FOIA requests.

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