The Second District Appellate Court recently affirmed a Winnebago County Court’s decision denying civil penalties against the State’s Attorney for failure to comply with plaintiff’s FOIA request. The Second District’s opinion in Williams v. Bruscato, 2021 IL App (2d) 190971 (July 21, 2021) further clarified when civil penalties can be imposed on public bodies that fail to comply with a FOIA request.
The plaintiff, Marvin Williams, filed a complaint alleging that the State’s Attorney violated FOIA when it denied all three of his requests for grand jury records concerning criminal charges against him. The trial court agreed with the State’s Attorney’s denial of all three requests because the documents were exempt from disclosure pursuant to Section 7(1)(a) of FOIA (that the records were expressly prohibited from disclosure by state law). Plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court found for the State’s Attorney on two of the requests, and for Williams on one of the requests.
Following the appellate court’s ruling in his favor, Williams asked the trial court to impose civil penalties against the State’s Attorney for its initial denial pursuant to Section 11(j), which allows for penalties “If the court determines that a public body willfully and intentionally failed to comply with this Act, or otherwise acted in bad faith.” 5 ILCS 140/11(j).
The trial court denied the request for civil penalties, ruling that the State’s Attorney did not act in bad faith. The appellate court agreed, finding that Williams failed to allege or prove the State’s Attorney’s Office “knew or had a reasonable belief” that the respective documents were subject to disclosure and that the State’s Attorney’s Office showed good faith by immediately releasing the documents when ordered to do so. The appellate court’s ruling also noted that sanctions for “willful and intentional” failure to comply with FOIA are not available unless the failure to comply was in bad faith.
As a result, public bodies should take note that civil penalties for failure to comply with a FOIA request will be imposed in instances where the failure to comply is willful, intentional and in bad faith.