September 11, 2015

By Paulette A. Petretti and Parker R. Himes 

            On July 17, 2015, Judge David Akemann, presiding in the Sixteenth Judicial Circuit, Kane County, Illinois, granted the Firm’s motion to dismiss a complaint against an Illinois community college, which claimed that the college had violated the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”).  The violations were allegedly manifested by the College’s invocation of FOIA exemptions as grounds to deny requests for voluminous data, databases and compilation of generic student information.

            In David Hites v. Waubonsee Community College, the controversy focused on the validity of FOIA requests seeking data and information that the College did not aggregate in the ordinary course of business, such as aggregated zip codes of GED students, numbers of registered students who lack social security numbers, and records of numbers of students taking ABE/GED classes on certain campuses. The plaintiff argued that even though the public body had not created or maintained records such as those requested, the College should nonetheless be required to “query” its numerous databases to compile the requested data.  To the extent that the College declined to perform queries, Hites demanded that he be given direct access to the databases in order to perform his own queries.  The plaintiff’s arguments were premised on his assertion that every piece of data (e.g. reference to a social security number or a zip code) is a public record and is subject to disclosure, pursuant to FOIA. The Court rejected plaintiff’s theory that each piece of data contained in a database is its own unique public record subject to FOIA disclosure and relied on a strict construction of the meaning of “public record” under FOIA.


            The Court ruled that a public body is not required to aggregate data which it does not aggregate in the regular course of business.  Notably, the Court found that “plaintiff’s requests do not seek ‘public records’ as the term is defined in the Act, but rather seek numerical tallies, the compilation of which is not required of the College by FOIA.” Importantly, “plaintiff’s insistence that he is not requesting that the College review its files and prepare a tally and/or produce general data, information, and statistics belies the text of his own FOIA request.”  The Court reminded plaintiff that, “well settled in Illinois law is the principle that a request to inspect or copy must reasonably identify a public record, as opposed to general data, information, or statistics.”  The Court ruled that “the College is not obligated under FOIA to answer general inquiry questions concerning the number of students that fall within the very specific categories crafted by plaintiff.  In order to answer the above-referenced five requests, it would require the creation of new records, which explicitly is not required under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.  Thus dismissal relative to these requests is proper.”


            Just as the College is not required to compile data from physical records, the Court stated that “FOIA does not require the College to query individual data fields contained on the College’s database and create a new report that the College had not already generated or otherwise used.”  The pleadings and testimony in this case demonstrated to the Court that the College does not prepare or maintain any documents or databases that aggregate the data sought by plaintiff.


The plaintiff alternatively argued that requested pieces of data, such as zip codes, could be found on various paper forms, including the student registration form, used by the public body.  Notwithstanding this fact, the College pointed out that locating, copying and redacting thousands of forms, almost 10,000 documents, would take months to complete.  Responding to the request would also necessitate pulling employees off their important day-to-day tasks, because student registration records include confidential information that only certain authorized employees may inspect.  Therefore, in order to respond to the request, the College would be required to hire temporary employees to do the day-to-day work of confidential employees processing the request, costing the public body tens of thousands of dollars.  The Court found that responding to the requests using the paper forms would cause an undue burden on the public body that FOIA seeks to avoid.  Additionally, in noting that over the course of several years Hites had repeatedly asked for the same information, the Court pointed out that “repeated requests from the same person for the same records that are unchanged or identical to records previously provided or properly denied under this Act shall be deemed unduly burdensome.”


Moreover, the Court found that “querying” the numerous databases maintained by the public body for individual and unrelated pieces of data would have unduly burdened the public body, in that most of the College’s IT department would be taken off their regular tasks, causing significant interference and disruption for the College’s functions.  With regard to the question of burden, the Court found that “the College has successfully demonstrated that the burden of complying with the plaintiff’s remaining FOIA requests outweighs the public’s interest in obtaining the requested information.”


In summary, the College disagreed with plaintiff’s position that there existed public records that were responsive to his requests. In keeping with the College’s position, the Court determined that plaintiff’s requests were barred by statutory provisions and that the College’s invocation of exemptions and objections was warranted. 


            This FOIA ruling provides significant legal authority for any public sector entity seeking to challenge requests to obtain compilations of data, which are not aggregated in the ordinary course of business.  Moreover, to the extent redaction of public records is demanded, this case confirms that a showing of undue disruption of public resources will serve to bar such requests.