Mark O. Stern v. Wheaton-Warrenville Community Unity School District 200 is a 2008-2009 case in the Illinois Supreme Court.
The reversal of the district courts decision established two important precedents for Illinois FOIA litigation:
1.) That merely placing documents in an exempted source does not exempt those documents from FOIA requests.
2.) That previous voluntary disclosures to FOIA requests eliminate potential claims of exemption on similar FOIA requests.
- Wheaton resident and one-time candidate for District 200 school board Mark Stern requested the contract of Superintendent Gary Catalani on January 26, 2006.
- The district refused the request claiming that the contract was a part of a personal file and therefor exempt from FOIA requests.
- Stern consulted the state attorney general and received a non-binding opinion (an opinion which holds no legal force or precedent) that the contract was not exempt.
- Stern was again denied despite having the support of the attorney general.
- Stern obtained a second opinion from the state attorney general's office stating that, not only was Catalani's contract not exempt, but that the district was required to supply it under the state constitution.
- Stern also discovered that other individuals and organizations including the Daily Herald and the Chicago Tribune had made FOIA requests for Catalani's contract and been granted them.
- Catalani claimed that the newspapers received the contracts at the behest of Catalani himself and not as a result of an FOIA request.
- The trial court ruled in favor of Catalani claiming that the contract was a part of his personal file and was thus exempt from the FOIA. This ruling was based on Lieber v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University, which asserted that "the names and addresses of people who had been accepted to Southern Illinois University, but had not yet enrolled, were not exempt information under the FOIA," because the potential exemption only pertained to students, and Copley Press, Inc. v. Board of Education for Peoria School District No. 150, 359 Ill. App. 3d 321, 324-25 (2005), which ruled "that a school district superintendent's performance evaluations and a letter stating the reasons for his dismissal were per se exempt from disclosure under the FOIA" The language of this ruling also extended the possible contents of a personal file to include contracts, thus rendering contracts exempt from FOIA requests.
- Stern appealed the decision based on the claims that:
- "the employment contract is not exempt from disclosure under the FOIA and must be disclosed because it bears on the public duties of a public official"
- "even if the contract falls within an exemption, the District waived the exemption when Catalani provided the contract to the two newspapers"
Supporters of Stern
The following is a list of notable people and groups that have come out in support of the contract being available to Stern:
- Lisa Madigan
- Illinois Press Association
- Citizen Advocacy Center of Elmhurst
Criticisms of school district
The Daily Herald pointed out the school district's history of ignoring calls for transparency. The newspaper asked the district to disclose the amount of money spent on pursuing the case, and it was told to file a FOIA request, which has yet to be returned.
Rules of the Appellate Court of Illinois Second District
The Appellate Court took into account the case of Reppert v. Southern Illinois University, 375 Ill. App. 3d 502 (2007), which ruled contrary to Copley and insisted that contracts were considered part of public record and thus not exempt from FOIA based on section 8 of the statute.
With regard to Sterns first accusation the Appellate court ruled that the contract is in essence a non-exempt document within an exempt source. To put it simply, not everything contained in a personal file is exempt, despite the file being classified exempt. The court felt that this went counter to the principles of FOIA and provided an easy and unintended loophole to hide information by merely placing it in a personal file. Thus, the Appellate court mandated a review of the contract to determine if any part of it fell under the exempt category of personal information, and ordered that the remainder be released.
With regard to Stern's second argument the court ruled that per Lieber, and other federal cases, voluntary disclosure under FOIA requests precludes later claims of exemption. The court agreed with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that the practice of voluntarily granting information and then claiming exemptions displays a preferential treatment that runs counter to the ideas behind FOIA.
Thus, the Appellate court reversed and remanded the decision of the district court based on both of Stern's claims.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Daily Herald, "Case may determine what taxpayers can know about officials' pay," March 17, 2009
- ↑ Illinois Association of School Boards, "Recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) developments"
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Official ruling of the Appellate Court of Illinois Second District