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Paul Heinrich v. Jesse White

August 27, 2012

PAUL HEINRICH,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JESSE WHITE, SECRETARY OF STATE,
DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 11-CH-558 Honorable Thomas E. Mueller, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Schostok

JUSTICE SCHOSTOK delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Presiding Justice Jorgensen and Justice Hutchinson concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 The plaintiff, Paul Heinrich, brought this action under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (Act) (5 ILCS 140/1 et seq. (West 2010)) in the circuit court of Kane County against the Illinois Secretary of State (Secretary). Heinrich's complaint alleged that the Secretary improperly denied his request for automated access to administrative decisions issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) that inform drivers that their licenses were suspended or revoked. The trial court granted the Secretary's motion to dismiss the suit with prejudice. Heinrich appeals from that order, contending that the trial court erred in granting the Secretary's motion to dismiss, because (1) Heinrich's complaint properly pleaded a cause of action for a violation of the Act, and (2) the information Heinrich requested was not exempt under the Act. We hold that, although the trial court correctly found that much of the requested information was exempt from disclosure, its dismissal of the complaint with prejudice was error. We therefore reverse and remand.

¶ 2 BACKGROUND

¶ 3 On October 11, 2010, Heinrich, an attorney, requested access to all "Notice[s] of Suspension sent to motorist[s] for any traffic violation(s)" issued by the Secretary and the DMV. On November 22, 2010, the Secretary denied Heinrich's request on the grounds that the information sought was exempt from production in two ways: under section 2-123(f-5) of the Illinois Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/2-123(f-5) (West 2010)) and section 7(1) of the Act (5 ILCS 140/7(1) (West 2010)); and as "private information" under sections 2(c-5) and 7(1)(b) of the Act (5 ILCS 140/2(c-5), 7(1)(b) (West 2010).

¶ 4 On February 8, 2011, Heinrich filed a complaint for injunctive relief compelling the Secretary to produce the documents. The complaint alleged that the Secretary and the DMV were "public bodies" under the Act; the DMV manually and automatically issued administrative orders concerning the driving privileges of Illinois motorists; and these orders were "public records" within the meaning of the Vehicle Code and the Act. On April 21, 2011, the Secretary filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2010)), arguing that Heinrich's complaint did not state a cognizable cause of action for several reasons: the claimed documents contained "personally identifying information," the claimed documents contained "private information," the Illinois Vehicle Code did not permit the Secretary to release "personally identifying information," and producing the documents would be unduly burdensome.

¶ 5 On June 14, 2011, the trial court held a hearing on the motion to dismiss. After hearing arguments, the trial court found that the material sought was "private information," as that term is defined in the Act, and therefore was exempt from disclosure under the Act. The trial court further found that, in order to comply with the Act and the Vehicle Code, the driver's name, address, driver's license number, and ticket number would all have to be redacted from each form. The trial court concluded that, once these redactions were made, nothing useful would be left. Therefore, the trial court did not consider the question of whether the request would be unduly burdensome. The trial court ultimately granted the Secretary's motion to dismiss with prejudice. Heinrich filed a timely notice of appeal.

¶ 6 ANALYSIS

¶ 7 Heinrich contends that the trial court erred in granting the Secretary's section 2-615 motion to dismiss, because (1) he properly pleaded a cause of action for a violation of the Act, and (2) the information he requested was not exempted by the Act. The Secretary contends that Heinrich failed to state a claim both because his request was invalid under the Act, in that it contained a request for records that had not yet been created, and because the request was unduly burdensome on its face. We take all of these arguments in turn.

¶ 8 "There is a presumption [under the Act] that public records be open and accessible ***." Cooper v. Department of the Lottery, 266 Ill. App. 3d 1007, 1011 (1994). Section 7 of the Act provides an extensive list of exemptions to disclosure, which are to be narrowly construed. Id. at 1012. When a public body receives a proper request under the Act, it must comply with that request unless one of the statutory exemptions set forth in section 7 of the Act applies. 5 ILCS 140/3, 7 (West 2010); Illinois Education Ass'n v. Illinois State Board of Education, 204 Ill. 2d 456, 463 (2003). Moreover, even when some of the information requested is exempt, the public body may still be required to produce the remaining information in redacted form. Section 7(1) of the Act states in pertinent part:

"When a request is made to inspect or copy a public record that contains information that is exempt from disclosure under this Section, but also contains information that is not exempt from disclosure, the public body may elect to redact the information that is exempt. The public body shall make the remaining information available for inspection and copying. Subject to this requirement, the following shall be exempt from inspection and copying:

(a) Information specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or State law or rules and regulations ...


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