Illinois Appellate Court Clarifies FOIA Undue Burden Exception

Author: David W. McArdle
July 31, 2018

In a July 2018 ruling, an Illinois appellate court clarified the requirements for claiming a section 3(g) undue burden exception under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The case involved a FOIA request for various pieces of non-personal identifying demographic information contained in a community college’s databases.

To claim a section 3(g) exemption under FOIA, the public body must show the following:

  • Compliance with the record request represents an undue burden.
  • There is no way to narrow the request.
  • The burden outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

Any exception to FOIA must be read narrowly. Additionally, a FOIA “request that is ‘overly broad and requires the public body to locate, review, redact and rearrange for inspection a vast quantity of material that is largely unnecessary to the [requestor’s] purpose’ constitutes an undue burden.”

In overturning the grant of the college’s motion to dismiss, the Court re-considered testimony offered at a lengthy evidentiary hearing. First, the college’s Chief Information Officer had testified that retrieval of the requested information would take at least a week for each of the seven pieces of requested information, totaling more than 150 hours, if employees performed the task in conjunction with their normal duties. Additionally, the requestor testified that he was seeking the information in his role as parking chairman of Aurora Downtown, a taxpayer funded oversight committee. The city had invested approximately $45 million in the college’s downtown campus in the form of incentives and preferential treatment, and the requestor wanted to study whether the college was prioritizing programs that pushed students away from the new downtown campus to a secondary campus in Sugar Grove.

In examining the trial court’s findings of fact, the Court determined that the trial court had erred in how it considered the length of time it would take college personnel to comply with the request. The Court held that only the amount of time it would take to comply with the request, separate from regular duties, was relevant. The college’s Chief Information Officer testified that each of the seven requests would take approximately one full day to complete if an employee focused on the task exclusively. Therefore, the appropriate amount of time to consider relative to undue burden was 56 employee hours, not the “over 150” mentioned in the trial court’s ruling.

Next, the Court noted that the trial court had failed to make a finding on whether there was any way to narrow the request. The trial court had addressed an important threshold question associated with this element in that the college had offered the requestor an opportunity to narrow his request. However, it had failed to determine whether the request could, in fact, be narrowed.

Finally, the Court held that the trial court had erroneously minimized the public interest value of the requested information. The trial court had characterized the requested demographic information as an attempt to “speculate about what businesses that the students might frequent.” The Court, however, found that the request carried more public interest weight as it was an attempt to examine the benefits of Aurora’s investment in the college’s downtown campus. The Court likened this to the significant public interest in how tax dollars are spent, finding that the requestor’s actions were in accord with his role in Aurora Downtown and its mission to promote local business and economic development.

In conclusion, the Court made three important holdings regarding the section 3(g) FOIA exception. First, in determining an undue burden, the court should consider the time necessary to comply with the FOIA request alone, not in conjunction with employees’ regular duties. Next, a court must determine whether the request can be narrowed, not simply address the threshold question of whether the public body had offered the requestor the opportunity to narrow the request. Finally, there is a significant public interest in examining how a public investment is benefitting the investing city.

Author: David McArdle