PAC Provides Further Guidance on Unduly Burdensome FOIA Requests

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PAC Provides Further Guidance on Unduly Burdensome FOIA Requests

Apr 9, 2024

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On March 5, 2024, the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) issued a non-binding determination letter which provides public bodies with further guidance on designating requests as unduly burdensome See 2024 PAC 80393.

In this matter reviewed by the PAC, a public body received a FOIA request seeking copies of all text messages sent or received by an administrator since December 2023, that included “public employees or officials, contained public information, or otherwise pertained to public business.” The requester further stated, “if this request would exceed the page limit for being considered unduly burdensome or voluminous under FOIA, I am requesting the number of pages that do not exceed that limit.” The public body responded that the FOIA request was unduly burdensome because compliance would require collecting and processing hundreds of message threads and thousands of potentially responsive records, including many messages that are not “public records” as defined by FOIA. The requester was provided with an opportunity to narrow the request to a manageable proportion. The requester declined to do so, and the public body denied the request as unduly burdensome.

The requester submitted a Request for Review to the PAC, claiming that a large portion of any burden on the public body was likely the result of an intermingling of public records with personal messages on the administrator’s personal cell phone, which the requester did not believe was a reasonable or justifiable basis for denying access to public records. The requester further explained that he chose not to narrow the request because further limiting the time period or excluding relevant parties could have negatively impacted the purposes of the request.

In its analysis, the PAC reiterated that a request for all communications sent or received by a public official or employee over a period of several weeks or months, which would require a public body to gather and review a large quantity of potentially responsive records, is unduly burdensome in the absence of an identified public interest. Here, the PAC determined that the request was categorical and vast in scope, in that it would require a review of every single text message sent and received by an administrator over a period of two (2) months, regardless of subject matter. Further, the PAC determined that the requester failed to set forth information suggesting that there was any particular public interest in the time period specified in the request. Finally, the PAC found the requester’s argument that the public body could limit the number of pages of responsive records to stay below an unduly burdensome threshold unavailing because it is the requester’s responsibility to delineate the scope of the request by reasonably identifying the public records sought. Notably, FOIA does not permit a requester to transfer that responsibility to a public body by lodging an overbroad request that purports to require the public body provide whatever scope of records it feels is just shy of unduly burdensome.

While the PAC does not specify a definite number of records which may constitute a FOIA request as unduly burdensome, this determination provides further clarification on the factors to be considered when assessing whether a request is unduly burdensome in nature and confirms that it is the requester’s burden to reasonably identify the scope of records sought by a request.