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Timpone v. The Illinois Student Assistance Commission

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Third Division

December 11, 2019

BRIAN TIMPONE, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
THE ILLINOIS STUDENT ASSISTANCE COMMISSION, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County 2016-CH-0011386, Honorable Kathleen M. Pantle, Judge Presiding

          Attorneys for Appellant: Kwame Raoul, Attorney General, of Chicago (Jane Elinor Notz, Solicitor General, and Mary C. Labrec, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel), for appellant.

          Attorneys for Appellee: James J. McQuaid and Jeffrey M. Schwab, of Liberty Justice Center, of Chicago, for appellee.

          McBRIDE JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Howse and Cobbs concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          McBRIDE JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 Brian Timpone filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 ILCS 140/3(a) (West 2014)) request with the Illinois Student Loan Assistance Commission (ISAC or commission) to obtain the names of all students who received grants in 2015 through the State's Monetary Award Program (MAP), as well as the name of the college or university that each student attended. ISAC routinely distributes statistics that include the name of every school where MAP grants are disbursed, the number of grants, total dollars, and mean recipient income per institution, as well as details about the grants. ISAC cited privacy concerns for withholding the student names from Timpone but produced a spreadsheet aggregating the 2015 MAP grants by city and detailing the total dollar amount and number of recipients for each location. Timpone then filed an action in the circuit court of Cook County to compel the public disclosure of each student's name (see 5 ILCS 140/11(a) (West 2014)), and there he prevailed on cross-motions for summary judgment. The commission appeals the determination that it "improperly" withheld the information and argues that together section 7(1)(a) of FOIA and section 2700.55 of the commission's regulations exempt public disclosure of "personally identifiable information" (5 ILCS 140/7(1)(a) (West 2014); 23 Ill. Adm. Code 2700.55 (amended at 38 Ill. Reg. 13356, eff. July 1, 2014), and that section 7(1)(b) of FOIA exempts public disclosure of "[p]rivate information" (5 ILCS 140/7(1)(b) (West 2014)). In the event we find either of IS AC s exemption arguments persuasive, we would vacate not only the circuit court's October 2017 summary judgment order but also its May 2018 decision to award Timpone $10, 478 based on the FOIA language that entitles a person who "prevails in a proceeding under this Section" to an award of his or her reasonable attorney fees and costs. 5 ILCS 140/11(i) (West 2014). Enforcement of the circuit court orders has been stayed pending this appeal.

         ¶ 2 ISAC's timely filing of a notice of appeal on May 31, 2018, complied with Illinois Supreme Court Rule 303 (eff. Jan. 1, 2015). Accordingly, we have jurisdiction under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 301 (eff. Feb. 1, 1994).

         ¶ 3 ISAC administers the financial grant program known as MAP pursuant to the Illinois Higher Education Student Assistance Act. See 110 ILCS 947/35, 20(f) (West 2014); What is MAP?, Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, https://www.isac.org/home/map-matters/about.html (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/6T64-VM39]. MAP grant money may be offered to residents of Illinois and citizens or permanent residents of the United States who are "deterred by financial considerations" from completing their postsecondary education. 110 ILCS 947/35(a) (West 2014). Initial eligibility is entirely need-based and does not take into account high school grades or test scores, but grant renewals are conditioned on good academic standing. What is MAP?, Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, https://www.isac.org/home/map-matters/about.html (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/6T64-VM39]; 110 ILCS 947/35(b)(1)-(3) (West 2014).

         ¶ 4 Students apply for various forms of financial aid, including MAP grants, by disclosing their financial details, as well as their parents' or spouse's financial details, to the United States Department of Education (DOE) on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, which is commonly known as FAFSA. What is MAP?, Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, https://www.isac.org/home/map-matters/about.html (last visited Dec. 3, 2109) [https://perma.cc/6T64-VM39]; see also 23 Ill. Adm. Code 2735.30(a), amended at 37 Ill. Reg. 9528 (eff. July 1, 2013); Dependency Status, Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, https://www.isac.org/students/before-college/financial-aid-planning/completing-the-fafsa/ dependency-status.html (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/2XM3-ZYNB]. ISAC's website indicates that "[a]pplicants are automatically considered to be dependent students for financial aid purposes (meaning financial aid eligibility will be determined including parent information) unless they meet the federal definition of an independent student." Dependency Status, Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, https://www.isac.org/students/before-college/financial-aid-planning/completing-the-fafsa/dependency-status.html (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/2XM3-ZYNB]. DOE then shares the individual or family financial data with ISAC. What is MAP?, Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, https://www.isac.org/home/map-matters/about.html (last visited Dec. 3, 2109) [https://perma.cc/6T64-VM39]. Students who list an approved Illinois college on their FAFSA are "automatically" considered for MAP grants. How to Apply, Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, https://www.isac.org/students/during-college/types-of-financial-aid/grants/monetary-award-program/index.html#How_to_Apply) (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/KKT3-Y3EP].

         ¶ 5 Each student may be granted up to $6468 per academic year (110 ILCS 947/35(c)(1) (West 2014)) but MAP funds are "apportioned among otherwise eligible applicants on the basis of relative financial resources and available funds" (23 Ill. Adm. Code 2735.10(a) (1998) (summary and purpose of MAP)). In the last five years, "more than 600, 000 Illinois students received over $1.8 billion in MAP grants to help them attend college." What is MAP?, Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, https://www.isac.org/home/map-matters/about.html (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/6T64-VM39].

         ¶ 6 ISAC routinely divulges detailed statistics about MAP disbursements and the recipients of those funds. ISAC maintains an annual "Data Book" on its website in which the State agency specifies each year's appropriation history and the formula used to grant or deny that year's applications. See, e.g., 2015 Data Book, Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, https://www.isac.org/e-library/research-policy-analysis/ data-book/2015-data-book.html (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/JB7B-4NC9]. ISAC also compiles numerous tables of statistics about each year's disbursements. MAP disbursements are, for instance, reported in the Data Book by type of educational program, including all schools, public four-year institutions, private nonprofit institutions, and so forth. See 2015 Data Book, Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, https://www.isac.org/e-library/research-policy-analysis/data-book/2015-data-book.html (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/JB7B-4NC9]. ISAC then specifies each institution's tuition and fees, MAP receipts, average award, and number of MAP recipients. See 2015 Data Book, Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, https://www.isac.org/e-library/research-policy-analysis/data-book/2015-data-book.html (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/JB7B-4NC9]. ISAC also discloses the mean income per recipient and the mean income per denied applicant at each school. Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, Average Income by Dependency Status, http://www.isac.org/e- library/research-policy-analysis/data-book/documents/2015-data-book/2015DataBookTable 2.3d.pdf (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/EKT6-MWFX]. The tables for fiscal year 2015 indicate, for instance, that the mean income of parents of all eligible dependent students was $30, 652 and the mean income of parents whose dependent children used MAP dollars to attend public four-year schools was $33, 098. Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, Average Income by Dependency Status, http://www.isac.org/e-library/research-policy-analysis/data-book/documents/ 2015-data-book/2015DataBookTable2.3d.pdf (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/EKT6-MWFX]. Within the data about public four-year schools, it is disclosed that parents whose dependent children used MAP dollars to attend University of Illinois-Urbana had a mean income of $38, 170 and parents whose dependent children used MAP dollars to attend Chicago State University had a mean income of $20, 682. Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, Average Income by Dependency Status, http://www.isac.org/e-library/research-policy-analysis/data-book/documents/ 2015-data-book/2015DataBookTable2.3d.pdf (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/EKT6-MWFX]. The corresponding income figures for independent students receiving MAP grants in fiscal year 2015 were $16, 268 for all recipients, $14, 610 for recipients who attended public four-year schools, $9338 for recipients who attended University of Illinois-Urbana, and $12, 575 for recipients who attended Chicago State University. Ill. Student Assistance Comm'n, Average Income by Dependency Status, http://www.isac.org/e-library/research-policy-analysis/data-book/ documents/2015-data-book/2015DataBookTable2.3d.pdf (last visited Dec. 3, 2019) [https://perma.cc/EKT6-MWFX]. Thus, IS AC publicly discloses how it handles MAP dollars, and it divulges detailed data about the income of MAP grant recipients.

         ¶ 7 In May 2016, Timpone submitted a FOIA request by e-mail, seeking the name of every student who received a 2015 MAP grant, as well as the name of his or her college or university and home address. After ISAC declined to disclose "private information" or "personal financial information," Timpone amended his request to seek the home cities or zip codes of each student, rather than his or her home address. We note that it was unclear from Timpone's e-mail whether he meant to abandon his request for the students' names, however, ISAC construed Timpone's response as a decision to forgo that portion of his initial request. Timpone subsequently asked whether ISAC would "separate out" the high schools attended by the recipients, stating that it "[w]ould be great to have that too," but that he would "take zip if it is all that is possible." ISAC then generated a spreadsheet in excess of 50 pages aggregating the 2015 MAP grants by city and disclosing the total dollar amount and number of recipients in each location. In June 2016, Timpone objected to the fact that the spreadsheet he received did not include the student names. ISAC reiterated the basis for its denial, specifying that MAP was a financial need-based program and that student names had been obtained by ISAC through "the FAFSA[, ] which is private."

         ¶ 8 Later that year, Timpone filed the complaint at issue in which he sought individual student names, and ISAC filed its answer and affirmative defenses citing various federal and State provisions ISAC contended exempted the information from disclosure to the public. The parties next filed motions for summary judgment, which the circuit court resolved in Timpone's favor. The parties also filed cross-motions for reconsideration, in which Timpone sought the addition of zip codes and high school names (that is, seeking information mentioned in his e-mails to ISAC but not included in his circuit court complaint), and ISAC argued for reversal of the summary judgment ruling. Timpone also filed a motion for attorney fees and costs. The circuit court denied the parties' crossmotions for reconsideration but granted Timpone's fee petition. ISAC contends here that the judgment and fee award were in error.

         ¶ 9 Relevant to our analysis is that, under FOIA, public records are presumed to be open and accessible to the light of public scrutiny. Hites v. Waubonsee Community College, 2016 IL App (2d) 150836, ¶ 53, 56 N.E.3d 1049, 1059 (2016) (citing Stern v. Wheaton-Warrenville Community Unit School District 200, 233 Ill.2d 396, 405, 910 N.E.3d 85, 91 (2009)); 5 ILCS 140/1.2 (West 2014) ("[a]ll records in the custody or possession of a public body are *** open to inspection or copying"). The term "public records" is broad and includes "all records *** having been prepared by or for, or having been or being used by, received by, in the possession of, or under the control of any public body." 5 ILCS 140/2(c) (West 2014). Furthermore, it is "a fundamental obligation of government to operate openly and provide public records as expediently and efficiently as possible in compliance with this Act." 5 ILCS 140/1 (West 2014). As ISAC is one of the "commissions of this State," it is a "[p]ublic body" whose records are subject to FOIA's disclosure requirements (see 5 ILCS 140/2(a) (West 2014) (" 'Public body' means *** commissions of this State ***.")) and it has not been disputed by ISAC that MAP data is a "public record[ ]" within the meaning of FOIA. 5 ILCS 140/2.5 (West 2014). Thus, this appeal turns on whether the Illinois legislature exempted ISAC's MAP records from the presumption that they will be disclosed upon request.

         ¶ 10 A public body is required to comply with a valid request for information, unless the information comes within one of the narrow statutory exemptions set out in FOIA's section 7. Watkins v. McCarthy, 2012 IL App (1st) 100632 ¶ 13, 980 N.E.2d 733.

"Restraints on access to information, to the extent permitted by [FOIA], are limited exceptions to the principle that the people of this State have a right to full disclosure of information relating to the decisions, policies, procedures, rules, standards, and other aspects of government activity that affect the conduct of government and the lives of any or all of the people." 5 ILCS 140/1, 3(a) (West 2014).

         FOIA "shall be construed in accordance with this principle." 5 ILCS 140/1 (West 2014). FOIA is, therefore, to be read "liberally *** in order to provide the public with easy access to government information" and the exceptions to disclosure set out in the statute "are to be interpreted narrowly so as not to defeat FOIA's purpose." Hites, 2016 IL App (2d) 150836, ¶ 53, 117 N.E.3d 408; Bowie v. Evanston Community Consolidated School District No. 65, 128 ...


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