In 2018, an inmate filed two FOIA requests with the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) seeking personal information about other inmates and certain inmate master record files. The DOC denied both requests on the basis that the records were specifically prohibited from disclosure by state laws. The inmate filed a pro se lawsuit against DOC seeking civil penalties, attorney fees, and costs alleging that DOC improperly denied the inmate’s requests. While the inmate’s complaint was pending, the DOC provided him with records responsive to the initial FOIA requests. The trial court ruled in favor of the DOC in the lawsuit, and the inmate appealed, alleging that (1) the DOC’s mid-litigation disclosure of responsive records did not render his lawsuit “moot” and (2) the court should have granted him costs and civil penalties.

In Staake v. Illinois Department of Corrections, the Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling in favor of DOC due to the case being moot, finding that because the DOC provided the inmate with the requested records, there was no controversy any longer. 

However, on the issue of civil penalties, the Appellate Court reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court to determine whether the DOC denied the inmate’s requests willfully, intentionally or otherwise in bad faith. 

In remanding the case back, the Appellate Court noted that the DOC failed to provide a detailed factual basis, or any explanation at all, for why the DOC failed to redact certain exempt information from the responsive records pursuant to exemption 7(1)(a), and thereafter provide the inmate with redacted records, as required by FOIA sections 7(1) and 9(b). In addition, the Appellate Court noted that while the DOC’s re-assessment of its original interpretation of FOIA exemptions used to deny the FOIA requests, by itself, was not enough to demonstrate bad faith under FOIA, the fact that the DOC only did so after the inmate filed the lawsuit warranted further consideration by the trial court. 

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov,  Ancel Glink