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Lopez v. Fitzgerald

OPINION FILED JANUARY 26, 1979.

KAREN LOPEZ ET AL., APPELLANTS,

v.

JOSEPH FITZGERALD, JR., ET AL., APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Appellate Court for the First MR. JUSTICE KLUCZYNSKI DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiffs, individuals and community groups, filed a class action complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief seeking access to building inspection reports made by the Department of Buildings of the city of Chicago (Department). The individual plaintiffs alleged they had sought and were denied access to building inspection reports of buildings in which they resided or in which they contemplated renting an apartment or store. The reports were made following inspections at plaintiffs' or others' requests. The complaint further alleged that the Department denied the organizational plaintiffs access to reports concerning buildings within their neighborhoods. The circuit court of Cook County struck plaintiffs' class action allegations. It allowed plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and denied defendants' motion for summary judgment. The court declared that reports of building inspections and all other records prepared and kept by the Department of Buildings are public records under the Local Records Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 116, par. 43.101 et seq.) and section 41-7 of the Municipal Code of Chicago. The court further ordered that plaintiffs were entitled to inspect and to copy or receive copies of those records. The appellate court reversed the declaratory judgment order on the grounds that initial investigation reports are not public records either by statute or at common law since they are not final, but rather preliminary. (53 Ill. App.3d 164.) In its supplemental opinion on denial of rehearing, the appellate court stated that the trial court's order was overly broad and refused to disturb the trial court's striking of the class action allegations. This court allowed plaintiff's petition for leave to appeal (65 Ill.2d R. 315).

The issue presented is whether the building investigation reports to which plaintiffs seek access are public records open to public scrutiny. Count I of plaintiffs' second amended complaint alleged that the investigation reports were public records under sections 41-6 and 41-7 of the Municipal Code of Chicago and that plaintiffs had a right of access to those records, presumably at common law. Count II alleged a right to inspect the records under the Local Records Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 116, par. 43.101 et seq.).

The reports to which plaintiffs seek access were made following inspections pursuant to provisions of the Municipal Code of Chicago. Section 13-1 of the Code establishes a Department of Buildings. The Code provides for the appointment of technically trained inspectors to head the bureaus of electrical inspection, building inspection, sanitary inspection, plumbing inspection, elevator inspection, ventilation inspection, housing inspection, survey inspection, housing complaints and compliance (sec. 13-1 et seq.). Section 41-6 of the Code provides that it is the duty of the commissioner of buildings to cause an investigation to be made of all complaints filed with the Department and to keep a record of such investigations on file together with the reports and findings signed by the inspector or inspectors. Section 41-7 provides that, when such investigation or investigations disclose violations of the Municipal Code which are likely to endanger life, safety or health, the commissioner of buildings must give notice in writing to the owner, occupant, lessee or person in possession, charge or control of the premises to remedy the problem in the time designated in the notice, which must not be more than 15 days after the service of such notice. Section 46-5 repeats the notice and repair requirements. The Code also makes provision for compliance hearings (sec. 13-27).

Where the repairs, changes, alterations or requirements ordered by the notice are not made or performed to the satisfaction of the commissioner within the time specified in the notice (sec. 41-7) or within the time provided in section 13-27 governing compliance hearings, the matter must be referred to the corporation counsel for prosecution. Section 41-7 provides further that such investigations, including the contents of inspections, shall be preserved as public records and shall be admitted in the trial of the cause as prima facie evidence as to the contents thereof. The Municipal Code contains no provision for disclosure of investigation reports to members of the public.

The Local Records Act is entitled "An Act in relation to the destruction and preservation of public records * * *." It establishes a program for the management of local records in order to promote economy and efficiency in the day-by-day record-keeping activities of local governments and to facilitate and expedite governmental operations (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 116, par. 43.102).

The Act defines a public record as "any book, paper, map, photograph, or other official documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made, produced, executed or received by any agency or officer pursuant to law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by such agency or officer, or any successor thereof, as evidence of the organization, function, policies, decisions, procedures, or other activities thereof, or because of the informational data contained therein. Library and museum material made or acquired and preserved solely for reference or exhibition purposes, extra copies of documents preserved only for convenience of reference, and stocks of publications and of processed documents are not included within the definition of public record." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 116, par. 43.103.) As originally enacted, and currently in force, the Act contained a general provision that any person shall be supplied with copies of public records reproduced in accordance with the provisions of the Act:

"In any case where public records have been reproduced by photography, microphotography or other reproductions on film, in accordance with the provisions of this Act, any person or organization shall be supplied with copies of such photographs, microphotographs, or other reproductions on film upon payment of the required fee to the officer having custody thereof. The fee required to be paid shall be the actual cost of such copies, plus a service charge of 15% of such cost." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 116, par. 43.113.)

Despite the presence of this general provision, the Act was amended, effective October 1972, to include an express provision that reports and records of the obligation, receipt and use of public funds of units of local government and school districts are public records available for inspection by the public under specified limitations as to time, place and circumstances (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 116, par. 43.103a). This brought the Act into express conformity with article VIII, section 1(c), of the Illinois Constitution of 1970, which mandates public access to such records.

We find insufficient basis in the Local Records Act to justify access by plaintiffs to reports by building inspectors. In reaching this conclusion we have examined the statutory language and its context, as well as the statutory purpose (see Village of Lombard v. Pollution Control Board (1977), 66 Ill.2d 503, 507). The title and declaration of purpose for the Local Records Act manifest a statutory concern for determining which local governmental records should or should not be preserved on film. The definition of public records is broad and serves to ensure that no important records will be destroyed. Because the Local Records Act is concerned with the preservation of records, a cursory provision referring to public access to preserved records found toward the end of the Act cannot be construed to establish a basis for disclosure of specific records preserved. Different considerations are involved in determining which records are available for public disclosure than are raised in determining whether records should be preserved by a unit of government. The basis for determining which records are open to disclosure must be found outside the Local Records Act. Section 13 of the Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 116, par. 43.113) merely provides for the disclosure of preserved records to which the public is otherwise entitled to access.

An examination of an amendment to the Local Records Act and comparison with disclosure statutes from other jurisdictions further indicate that section 13 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 116, par. 43.113) is not a general disclosure-authorization provision. Section 3a of the Local Records Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 116, par. 43.103a) provides expressly for access to local financial records. The amendment assists in determining the legislative intent as to provisions of the unamended statute (see People ex rel. Gibson v. Cannon (1976), 65 Ill.2d 366, 373) and indicates that section 13 is not an access statute. The General Assembly found it necessary to provide expressly for the disclosure of financial records to bring the Local Records Act into conformity with article VIII, section 1(c), of the Illinois Constitution of 1970. Were section 13 a general access statute, the amendment would have been superfluous, and this court will not assume the legislature engaged in a useless act (Pinkstaff v. Pennsylvania R.R. Co. (1964), 31 Ill.2d 518, 524).

The limitations as to the circumstances under which financial records are open to the public under section 3a also support the conclusion that section 13 is not an access statute. Financial records are available only at certain times, in certain places, and as expressly limited by the right to privacy. General disclosure statutes from other jurisdictions contain both grants of rights of access and express exemptions and limitations on disclosure. (See e.g., 5 U.S.C. § 552 (1976); Cal. Gov't Code sec. 6254 (West 1978 Supp.); Md. Ann. Code art. 76A, sec. 3 (1978 Supp.); Mass. Ann. Laws ch. 4, sec. 7, cl. 26 (Michie/Law. Co-op 1978 Supp.) By contrast section 13 of the Local Records Act contains no limitations at all on the asserted right of access, an indication that the General Assembly was not addressing disclosure questions.

Plaintiffs argue that the investigation reports are public records under the definition contained in the Local Records Act and the Municipal Code of Chicago. However, the definition in the Local Records Act, as already noted, is concerned with the decision of whether a document should be preserved on film, not whether it should be open to public access. Therefore, even if the investigation reports fall within the definition of public records under the Local Records Act, it does not follow that they are subject to public disclosure. "Whether a record is to be regarded as a public record in a particular instance will depend upon the purposes of the law which will be served by so classifying it. A record may be a public record for one purpose and not for another." MacEwan v. Holm (1961), 226 Or. 27, 36, 359 P.2d 413, 417.

The term "public record," as used in the Municipal Code, is also directed to a circumstance other than public access to records. Section 41-7 directs that investigation reports be preserved as public records and be admitted at trial as prima facie evidence of code violations. Thus the Code is concerned with the preservation of the reports for use against the landlords in prosecutions for code violations. Direct access by members of the public is not contemplated.

The issue now before the court is whether inspection reports are public records available to the public at common law, since neither the Local Records Act nor the Municipal Code provide for public access.

The plaintiffs point to a general public policy favoring open government in support of their contention that building inspection reports are open to public access (Weinstein v. Rosenbloom (1974), 59 Ill.2d 475, 482; People ex rel. Gibson v. Peller (1962), 34 Ill. App.2d 372, 374; Nowack v. Auditor General (1928), 243 Mich. 200, 203, 219 N.W. 749, 750). However, countervailing factors may dictate nondisclosure. Although it recognized a broad statutory right of access, even to preliminary data collected for a report on radiation, the court in MacEwan v. Holm (1961), 226 Or. 27, 44-45, 359 P.2d 413, 420-21, stated:

"The public's right of inspection is not without qualification. There may be circumstances under which the information contained in a record can be justifiably withheld from the person seeking it. * * * Even where the request is made for a lawful purpose the public interest may require that the information be withheld. Thus where the information is received in confidence, it may be proper to refuse access to it. * * * There are other circumstances which will justify nondisclosure. Thus it has been suggested that inspection may be denied where a citizen seeks ...


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