An Illinois Appellate Court has further limited the public records that a public body can withhold from disclosure under Section 7(1)(n) of the Freedom of Information Act, which exempts “records relating to a public body’s adjudication of employee grievances and disciplinary cases.” The court held in Peoria Journal Star v. City of Peoria that an internal disciplinary report that was created before any adjudication took place and existed independent of any adjudication was merely an investigatory report, not an adjudicative one. That the report later led to disciplinary action did not make it exempt under Section 7(1)(n).
The Peoria Journal Star case involved a FOIA request to the City of Peoria from a local newspaper seeking all special reports written by a particular sergeant, including any documents detailing the on-the-clock activities of the Target Offender Unit. The City turned over one report, but withheld another under section (7)(1)(n). The withheld record was a report of an employee grievance which served as the factual basis that initiated internal disciplinary cases against two officers of the Peoria Police Department. According to the police department, formal disciplinary adjudications were conducted “based on the report.”
The plaintiffs appealed the denial to the Attorney General, which held that the record in question was not exempt under Section 7(1)(n). A trial court agreed, holding that the City failed to meet its burden of proving the report was exempt under Section 7(1)(n).
The Appellate Court affirmed. The court relied on a 2014 case, Kalven v. City of Chicago, in which another district of the Appellate Court held that Chicago Police Department Complaint Register (“CR”) files were not exempt under Section 7(1)(n). The records there were part of an investigatory process, but were separate and distinct from a disciplinary adjudication.
The Peoria Journal Star court took the Kalven decision one step further. Unlike the records in Kalven,the report unquestionably led to a disciplinary proceeding. Moreover, the adjudicatory proceedings, once commenced, were “based on” the report. Nonetheless, the report was created well before any adjudication took place and existed independent of any adjudication. Accordingly, the court found that the public body could not withhold the report under Section 7(1)(n).
Peoria Journal Star does not foreclose reliance on other exemptions, such as the predecisional exemption in Section 7(1)(f) of the FOIA or the exception for attorney client privileged records or work product in Section 7(1)(m). Public bodies thus may wish to consider other FOIA exemptions when preparing disciplinary reports. The court’s decision also would not allow a public body to release any records in violation of law, such as disciplinary reports that are more than four years old, which may not be released to third parties under the Illinois Personal Records Review Act. Nonetheless, Peoria Journal Star establishes thatunless another exemption is applicable, public bodies should be prepared to release disciplinary reports under the FOIA.