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Rushton v. Department of Corrections

Supreme Court of Illinois

December 19, 2019

BRUCE RUSHTON et al, Appellees,
v.
THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS et al. (Wexford Health Sources, Inc., Appellant).

          JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Kilbride, Garman, Karmeier, and Neville concurred in the judgment and opinion. Justice Theis dissented, with opinion.

          OPINION

          THOMAS JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Wexford Health Sources, Inc. (Wexford), contracts with the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide medical care to inmates. At issue is whether a settlement agreement between Wexford and the estate of an inmate who died from cancer is subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 ILCS 140/1 et seq. (West 2014)). We hold that it is.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 In August 2015, Bruce Rushton, a journalist for the Illinois Times, sent the following records request to the DOC:

"All settlement agreements pertaining to claims and/or lawsuits filed in connection with the death of Alfonso Franco, a former inmate at Taylorville Correctional Center who died from cancer in 2012. This request includes but is not limited to settlement agreements involving any private entities charged with providing health care to Mr. Franco, including but not limited to Wexford Health Sources."

         The DOC responded that it did not have a copy of the settlement agreement but was attempting to obtain it from Wexford. Wexford declined to turn over the settlement agreement to the DOC, claiming that it was "confidential in nature." In further conversations with the DOC, Wexford argued that the settlement agreement was not a public record for purposes of FOIA.

         ¶ 4 The DOC's chief legal counsel wrote to Wexford that it was required to provide the document to the DOC so that the DOC s FOIA officer could review it. Wexford continued to maintain that it was not required to give the settlement agreement to the DOC but agreed to provide a redacted version. The DOC responded that the settlement agreement was a public record under section 7(2) of FOIA (id. § 7(2)) and renewed its request for an unredacted version. The DOC told Wexford that, if the unredacted version was not forthcoming, it would provide plaintiff with a copy of the redacted version, along with an explanation that it was not able to obtain the unredacted version. Wexford did not provide the unredacted agreement, and the DOC gave Rushton the redacted version.

         ¶ 5 In April 2017, Rushton and the Illinois Times filed a complaint against the DOC, seeking an unredacted copy of the settlement agreement. The Sangamon County circuit court allowed Wexford to intervene in the lawsuit. The court later ordered Wexford to provide an unredacted version of the agreement to the court under seal.

         ¶ 6 Wexford moved for summary judgment. In its motion, Wexford argued that the settlement agreement was not subject to FOIA. Wexford cited section 7(2), which provides as follows:

"A public record that is not in the possession of a public body but is in the possession of a party with whom the agency has contracted to perform a governmental function on behalf of the public body, and that directly relates to the governmental function and is not otherwise exempt under this Act, shall be considered a public record of the public body, for purposes of this Act." Id.

         Wexford argued that the settlement agreement did not "directly relate" to the governmental function that it performs on behalf of the DOC because it simply memorializes its independent business decision to settle a legal claim. Wexford pointed out that the settlement agreement did not mention Franco's medical condition or the medical care that Wexford provided to Franco. Alternatively, Wexford argued that the redacted portions of the agreement were exempt under various provisions of FOIA.

         ¶ 7 Plaintiffs also moved for summary judgment. In a memorandum attached to their motion, plaintiffs argued that the settlement agreement was a public record under section 7(2). Plaintiffs explained that Wexford is clearly performing a governmental function on behalf of the DOC when it provides medical care to prisoners. Moreover, plaintiffs contended that the settlement agreement directly relates to that governmental function, as it is the settlement of a claim that Wexford failed to perform its governmental function properly. Plaintiffs further argued that none of the exemptions raised in Wexford's motion to dismiss applied to the settlement agreement.

         ¶ 8 Following a hearing, the trial court denied plaintiffs' summary judgment motion and entered summary judgment for Wexford. The court agreed with Wexford that the settlement agreement is a business decision that is not directly related to its provision of medical services for the DOC. Plaintiffs had argued that the amount of the settlement agreement affected taxpayers because the amount of the settlement would impact any future contracts between Wexford and the DOC. The trial court stated that this was a good policy argument but that it was speculative and any such consequence was only an indirect result of the settlement agreement.

         ¶ 9 Plaintiffs appealed, and the appellate court reversed. 2019 IL App (4th) 180206. The court first noted that FOIA is to be liberally construed and that its exemptions are to be narrowly construed. Id. ¶ 25. The court then explained that this court had held in Better Government Ass'n v. Illinois High School Ass 'n, 2017 IL 121124, ¶ 62, that the purpose of section 7(2) is to ensure that governmental entities may not avoid disclosure obligations by delegating their responsibilities to private entities. 2019 IL App (4th) 180206, ¶ 26. The appellate court declined to define the term" 'directly relates.'" Id. ¶ 30. The court explained that in Chicago Tribune v. College of Du Page, 2017 IL App (2d) 160274, ¶ 48, the Second District had declined to define the term "governmental function" in section 7(2) because it was concerned that any definition" 'might prove to be insufficiently flexible.'" 2019 IL App (4th) 180206, ¶ 27 (quoting Chicago Tribune, 2017 IL App (2d) 160724, ¶ 48). For the same reason, the appellate court here declined to define "directly relates." Id. ¶ 30. Rather, the court held that a court faced with an issue of whether a document directly relates to a delegated government function should conduct a fact-specific inquiry while considering the term "directly relates" in light of FOIA's liberal construction rule. Id. The court then held that the Wexford settlement agreement directly relates to the governmental function that it performs for the DOC because it "involved the settling of a claim arising out of its rendering of medical care." Id. ¶ 33. Accordingly, the court reversed the summary judgment for Wexford and remanded to the trial court to consider the other issue raised in Wexford's summary judgment motion: whether the redacted portions of the settlement agreement were exempt under FOIA. Id. ¶ 35.

         ¶ 10 We allowed Wexford's petition for leave to appeal. Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. July 1, 2018).

         ¶ 11 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 12 In arguing that the settlement agreement is not subject to disclosure, Wexford relies on two sections of FOIA. First, Wexford contends that the settlement agreement is not a "public record" under section 2.20 of FOIA (5 ILCS 140/2.20 (West 2014)). This section is titled "Settlement and severance agreements" and provides that

"[a]ll settlement agreements entered into by or on behalf of a public body are public records subject to inspection and copying by the public, provided that information exempt from disclosure under Section 7 of this Act may be redacted." Id.

         Wexford notes that this section refers to public bodies and does not say anything about settlement agreements of private contractors.[1] Alternatively, Wexford argues that the settlement agreement does not "directly relate" to the government function it performs for the DOC and is thus not subject to disclosure under section 7(2).

         ¶ 13 This appeal arises from the resolution of cross-motions for summary judgment. See 735 ILCS 5/2-1005 (West 2014). When parties file cross-motions for summary judgment, they mutually agree that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that only a question of law is involved. Jones v. Municipal Employees' Annuity & Benefit Fund, 2016 IL 119618, ¶ 26. Resolving this appeal requires us to construe various provisions of FOIA. Accordingly, our review is de novo. See Perry v. Department of Financial & Professional Regulation, 2018 IL 122349, ¶ 30 ("The standard of review is de novo, as this appeal presents an issue of statutory construction and also because it arises from a summary judgment order.").

         ¶ 14 When interpreting a statute, the court's primary objective is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature. Van Dyke v. White, 2019 IL 121452, ¶ 46. The most reliable indicator of legislative intent is the statutory language, which must be given its plain and ordinary meaning. Id. We consider the statute in its entirety, keeping in mind the subject it addresses and the apparent intent of the legislature in enacting it. People ex rel. Madigan v. Wildermuth, 2017 IL 120763, ¶ 17. Words and phrases should not be construed in isolation but must be interpreted in light of other relevant provisions of the statute. Id. No part of a statute should be rendered meaningless or superfluous. Skaperdas v. Country Casualty Insurance Co., 2015 IL 117021, ¶ 15.

         ¶ 15 The public policy behind FOIA is stated in its opening section:

"Pursuant to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of government, it is declared to be the public policy of the State of Illinois that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees consistent with the terms of this Act. Such access is necessary to enable the people to fulfill their duties of discussing public issues fully and freely, making informed political judgments and monitoring government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest.
The General Assembly hereby declares that it is the public policy of the State of Illinois that access by all persons to public records promotes the transparency and accountability of public bodies at all levels of government. It is a fundamental obligation of government to operate openly and provide public records as expediently and ...

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