The Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was amended in December, 2014 to provide that a public body is not required to copy a public record that is published on the public body’s website. 5 ILCS 140/8.5. The exception requires that the requester be able to “reasonably access” the record online after being directed to the website by the public body. A recent Illinois Appellate Court decision, Garlick v. Naperville Township, clarified what “reasonably access” may mean under this exception. In Garlick, the Appellate court suggested that if requested records are available only on a record-by-record basis (which would require the requester to conduct tens of thousands of searches and spend thousands of hours of time to obtain the records from the website), and the entire database sought cannot be retrieved online, the records may not be reasonably accessible online. If that is the case, the public body might be required to provide the requester an electronic copy of the database containing the data in its entirety. Although the Court’s decision in this case is quite preliminary, and does not decide for certain whether the data in question could be “reasonably accessed” online, the decision provides an important warning for how courts are likely to interpret this provision in future cases.
In Garlick,the plaintiff sought an electronic copy of Naperville Township’s entire database of property details and assessment data, which covers over 32,000 property tax parcel records. The Township denied the request and redirected the plaintiff to the Township’s website pursuant to Section 8.5 of the FOIA described above.
The plaintiff challenged the denial of his FOIA request in court. Specifically, the plaintiff complained that to access the information he requested, he would have to conduct 32,000 independent web database search inquiries, which he estimated would require approximately 2,600 hours of his time to complete. He also alleged (and the Township did not deny) that the entire database could not be accessed online. Plaintiff alleged that the Township possessed the data on a local server and on a backup in “the cloud,” and could easily provide the entire database to him in electronic form.
The Township moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the Plaintiff had failed to allege a valid claim. The trial court agreed, noting that although it would take time for the requester to compile the data, the data was available on the Township’s website. On appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the trial court, finding that the plaintiff properly pled facts that supported a potential finding that the data was not reasonably accessible online. Any question as to whether the database was sufficiently available on the website was thus a question of fact that should be decided at a later stage in the trial. Therefore, according to the Appellate Court, the case should not have been dismissed at this early stage in the proceedings. The Appellate Court thus reversed the dismissal of the case and remanded it back to the trial court.
Because Section 8.5 of the FOIA was so recently enacted, we have little guidance from the courts on its meaning or application. After Garlick, and until a higher court further interprets the issue, public bodies should seek legal counsel to consider the risks of denying a request based on data being reasonably accessible on its website.