COURT DECISION PRESERVES LIMITED DISCIPLINARY RECORD EXEMPTION IN FOIA

By James A. Petrungaro

 

July 5, 2018

             The Illinois Appellate Court has rejected a plaintiff’s attempt to erode the Personnel Records Review Act’s  (“PRRA”) prohibition on publicly disclosing disciplinary records older than four years. At issue in Johnson v. Joliet Police Department  was Johnson’s Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request for a police officer’s “disciplinary history.” The Joliet Police Department (“JPD”) acknowledged that though such records did exist, they could not be disclosed because they were older than four years and the Personnel Records Review Act prohibits the disclosure of such records. That law states: 

An employer shall review a personnel record before releasing information to a third party and, except when the release is ordered to a party in a legal action or arbitration, delete disciplinary reports, letters of reprimand, or other records of disciplinary action which are more than 4 years old. 

Thus, the JPD denied the FOIA request. 

            Appealing the JPD’s decision to the Circuit Court and then to the Appellate Court, Johnson argued that the PRRA’s prohibition has no application in the context of a FOIA request because the PRRA also states: “This Act shall not be construed to diminish a right of access to records already otherwise provided by law…” The Appellate Court disagreed with Johnson’s argument, noting that Section 7.5(q) of FOIA specifically exempts from disclosure “information prohibited from being disclosed by the [PRRA].” Therefore, the FOIA did not provide a separate right of access to the disciplinary records. 

            Following Johnson, school districts and other public bodies are free to continue denying FOIA request for disciplinary records older than four years of age. For disciplinary records within four years of a request, Section 7(1)(n) of FOIA – which exempts records “relating to a public body’s adjudication” of disciplinary cases – may be applicable. However, limited application of that exemption has been permitted by the courts and the Public Access Counselor, as it requires a decision by the governing board following a legal process, such as a hearing. 

            If you need assistance navigating the mandatory and permissible exemptions found in FOIA, your attorneys at Scariano, Himes and Petrarca stand ready.