Originally posted by Erin Baker on the Municipal Minute, a blog edited by Julie Tappendorf of Ancel Glink, about topics of interest to local governments and others. You can access the Municipal Minute at http://municipalminute.ancelglink.com.
In a recent decision, an Illinois appellate court ruled against the City of Peoria, finding that an employee disciplinary report that was created prior to an adjudication did not fall within the FOIA exemptions. Peoria Journal Star v. Cty of Peoria, 2016IL App (3d) 140838 (April 18, 2016).
A newspaper and a crime reporter filed a FOIA request with the City of Peoria, seeking all special reports written by a Peoria Police Sergeant in 2013. The City produced a copy of one report, but withheld another report written by the Sergeant, asserting that it was exempt under Section 7(1)(n) of FOIA. Section 7(1)(n) provides an exemption for “records relating to a public body’s adjudication of employee grievances or disciplinary cases.”
The reporter initially asked the Public Access Counselor of the Attorney General's Office to review the City’s denial. After review of the reporter's appeal, the PAC ruled against the City, finding that FOIA did not exempt the report from disclosure. However, the City continued to refuse to produce the report.
The reporter next filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief to compel the City to release the withheld report. The trial court found that the City failed to establish that the report fell within the FOIA exemptions and ruled in favor of the reporter.
On appeal to the appellate court, the City argued that the report fell within the 7(1)(n) exemption because it is “a report of an employee grievance and serves the factual basis which initiated two disciplinary cases against two officers of the Peoria Police Department.” The City further asserted that formal disciplinary adjudication were taken based on the report.
However, the appellate court disagreed with the City, noting that the term "adjudication" in Section 7(1)(n) is understood to involve a formal legal process, resulting in a final decision. The court held that a complaint or grievance about an employee is part of an investigatory process that is separate and distinct from a disciplinary adjudication, even though it is used to initiate the adjudication process. Since the report (which consisted of an employee grievance that later lead to disciplinary action) was created before any adjudication or final decision, the court found that it did not fall within the Section 7(1)(n) and ordered the City to release the report.
This opinion appears to substantially narrow a public body's use of this exemption even where an employee disciplinary adjudication process is ongoing.