The Fourth District Illinois Appellate Court recently heard a FOIA case pertaining to attorney fees, Martinez v. City of Springfield, 2022 IL App (4th) 210290.
Plaintiff, Freddy Martinez, filed a complaint against the City of Springfield and the Springfield Police Department (collectively, “Springfield”) asserting a violation of the Freedom of Information Act (the “FOIA”) 5 ILCS 140/1 et seq. Plaintiff sought a declaration that Springfield violated FOIA and requested an order mandating production of the requested records, attorney fees and civil penalties. Springfield subsequently produced the requested records to Plaintiff and moved for summary judgment on the complaint. The trial court determined Springfield acted reasonably and granted their motion. Plaintiff appealed, arguing in part, that the trial court erred by denying him attorney fees.
The court analyzed various district appellate court cases to determine whether FOIA authorizes an award of attorney fees in the absence of a court order.
Section 11(i) of FOIA provides for the award of attorney fees: “If a person seeking the right to inspect or receive a copy of a public record prevails in a proceeding under this Section, the court shall award such person reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. In determining what amount of attorney’s fees is reasonable, the court shall consider the degree to which the relief obtained relates to the relief sought. The changes contained in this subsection apply to an action filed on or after January 1, 2010.” 5 ILCS 140/11(i).
Plaintiff argued the trial court erred by not ordering attorney fees under section 11(i) because Springfield violated FOIA by not complying with his request within the statutory deadlines and also that he “prevailed” in his case when Springfield produced the requested records. Springfield acknowledged it failed to comply with the five-day deadline of FOIA but argued that attorney fees were not appropriate because they complied by producing the requested documents to Plaintiff before a court order had been entered.
The First, Second and Fifth Illinois district appellate courts, have ruled on the issue of whether a plaintiff can recover attorney fees as provided in Section 11(i). Springfield argued the decision of the Second District, which held a party is entitled to attorney fees under FOIA by court-ordered relief. In contrast, Plaintiff argued the First and Fifth District’s decisions which concluded a FOIA plaintiff can prevail and be entitled to attorney fees absent a court order.
Ultimately the Fourth District agreed with the decisions of the First and Fifth Districts that a FOIA plaintiff can recover attorney fees absent a court order. The Appellate court reversed and remanded back to the trial court to allow Plaintiff to have his request for attorney fees heard.
This is a good reminder for public bodies to be diligent in responding to FOIA requests within the statutory deadline. Even if the documents are subsequently provided to the requester after the deadline has passed, the plaintiff requester may be entitled to recover attorney fees absent a court order.