By: Courtney Willits
The Illinois Supreme Court recently heard Mancini Law Group, P.C. v. Schaumburg Police Department, 2021 IL 126675 involving the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA” or the “Act”) where a personal injury law firm filed suit against the Schaumburg Police Department claiming the Police Department violated FOIA when they provided redacted copies of traffic accident reports. The Supreme Court ultimately determined that government entities do not have the authority to waive an individual’s interest in his or her personal or private information in public records.
In 2017, Mancini Law Group filed a FOIA request seeking traffic accident reports from the Schaumburg Police Department. The Police Department provided redacted records, indicating that certain information was exempt from disclosure pursuant to Section 7(1)(b) (private information) and Section 7(1)(c) (personal information) of the Act. Specifically, the Police Department redacted driver’s license numbers, personal phone numbers, home addresses, and personal license plates. Mancini Law Group filed suit and claimed that the Police Department waived their right to withhold unredacted copies because they had previously provided unredacted copies of the traffic accident reports to LexisNexis, and therefore, they also had to provide unredacted copies to Mancini Law Group.
The Police Department responded that they provided unredacted copies of the reports to LexisNexis, a verified third-party vendor for the State of Illinois, in order to comply with the mandated reporting pursuant to the Illinois Vehicle Code. (625 ILCS 5/11-408 (West 2016).
The Circuit Court held the Police Department met their burden and that the information at issue was exempt and appropriately redacted. Mancini Law Group appealed the issue of whether the Police Department had lost any right to withhold the unredacted accident report records due to having previously and voluntarily provided unredacted reports to LexisNexis. A majority of the panel affirmed entry of summary judgment in favor of the Police Department, and Mancini Law Group filed for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court started its analysis by discussing its holding in the case Lieber v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University, 176 Ill. 2d 401, 413 (1997), which was cited by Mancini Law Group in support of its waiver argument. In Lieber, Southern Illinois University refused to give Lieber, an off-campus landlord, information regarding incoming freshman students, in part arguing that FOIA does not mandate release of information to be used for commercial purposes. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lieber noting that the university routinely provided similar information to religious groups and local newspapers, and therefore could not selectively refuse requests. The Court distinguished Lieber based on the facts and rejected the defendant’s argument that the 2010 FOIA amendments overturned Lieber’s waiver rule.
Due to the similarity of the Illinois FOIA and the Federal FOIA, Illinois courts often look to federal case law construing the federal FOIA for guidance in construing the state FOIA. Here, the Supreme Court relied on Sherman v. United States Department of the Army, 244 F.3d 357, 359 (5th Cir. 2001), though the case was not cited by either party. In Sherman, the Army was allowed to redact Social Security numbers when producing information to a database, even though it had previously given unredacted copies of the documents to the database in order to computerize the records. The court in that case acknowledged concern over selective disclosure by government agencies of exempted information but held the privacy interest at stake belongs to the individual and not the agency holding the information. Further, the Court reasoned, the fact that otherwise private information at one time or in some way may have been placed in the public domain does not mean that a person irretrievably loses his or her privacy interest in the information.
The Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment entered in the Police Department’s favor and held an Illinois public body does not have the ability to waive an individual’s interest in his or her personal or private information that is contained in a document subject to a FOIA request. Therefore the Police Department had the ability to redact the private and personal information contained in the traffic accident reports.
Justice Carter authored a special concurring opinion in which he agreed with judgment but disagreed on two points. First, he disagreed with the majority’s failure to find that the 2010 FOIA amendments to Section 7 were relevant and stated the amendments plainly allow a public body to elect to redact information its purview where disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Second, he rejected the majority’s reliance on Sherman because neither party cited the case, although he agreed on its discussion and analysis.