General Information Related to Public Duties in Settlement Agreements Not Excludable Under FOIA

Author: David W. McArdle

September 4, 2018

In August 2018, the Office of the Attorney General published Public Access Opinion 18-010 which emphasized that information regarding claims against a school district stated in broad, general terms and that was related to a public employee’s public duties was not exempt from disclosure under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Attorney General (AG) published this opinion in response to a case where the Illinois Education Association (NEA) submitted a FOIA request to the Arbor Park School District No. 145 seeking copies of records that pertained to the settlement agreement between the District and one of its former principals. The Department provided records but redacted information on the claims the principal could potentially bring against the District, as “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” under FOIA Section 7(1)(c).

The AG confidentially reviewed an unredacted copy of the agreement and found that the redacted information described the principal’s allegations and potential claims against the District in only broad, general terms. Furthermore, the redacted portions did not provide any details of the circumstances or events giving rise to the principal’s allegations, nor did it name any individuals or describe any specific conduct. Finally, the AG found that the redacted portions of the agreement bore on one or more public employees’ public duties.

Most importantly, the opinion cites a four-factor test for determining if the release of otherwise personal information contained in public records constitutes a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” under FOIA section 7(1)(c). The factors to be weighed are as follows: 1) the requestor’s interest in disclosure, 2) the public interest in disclosure, 3) the degree of invasion of privacy, and 4) the availability of alternative means of obtaining the requested information. For the reasons cited above, the AG determined that the factors weighed definitively in favor of disclosure.

The result of this opinion is that information contained in settlement agreements, if broached in broad, general terms and devoid of overly personal details, and which definitely bears on the public duties of a public employee, cannot be exempted from FOIA requests under section 7(1)(c).

David W. McArdle