FOIA Update – The Question Returns: By What Date Must a FOIA Request be Fulfilled?
In a previous edition of this publication, we highlighted the Michigan Court of Appeals 2016 Opinion in the case of Cramer v. Oakley, where the Court held that a public body’s duty to “grant” and “fulfill” a FOIA request were distinct concepts. Under that Opinion, municipalities were only required to respond to a FOIA request within the statutorily prescribed five (5) business days, but could “fulfill” the request (i.e., actually provide the records) at a later date as long as there was no inordinate delay. This is no longer the law! On April 5, 2017, the Supreme Court vacated the decision rendered by the Court of Appeals in Cramer v Oakley. The repercussions of the Supreme Court’s Order are that municipalities can no longer rely on the concept that granting and fulfilling a FOIA request are distinct or separate from one another.
In the initial Cramer decision, the Court of Appeals reasoned the Village of Oakley had satisfied the requirements of the FOIA statute by responding to a FOIA request within three (3) business days of its receipt by means of sending a notice to Cramer indicating that it was granting the FOIA request, would search its records, and would provide a copy of all relevant information to Cramer at a later date. Cramer had unsuccessfully argued that the Village’s failure to fulfill the request by producing the requested documentation within five (5) days violated the FOIA statute. The Village subsequently provided the requested records to Cramer at a later date, as it indicated it would do in its initial response.
Cramer appealed the decision of the Court of Appeals to the Michigan Supreme Court which issued its decision last month. The Supreme Court vacated the portion of the opinion of the Court of Appeals which discussed the granting and fulfillment distinction determining that it was moot since the Village had ultimately delivered the documents requested in conjunction with the FOIA request, and thus there was no longer a controversy or dispute to decide.
While the Supreme Court did not address the merits of the Court of Appeals opinion, the practical effect of the Order is that distinction between granting and fulfilling a FOIA request set forth by the Court of Appeals is no longer valid and binding law. It is possible the reasoning applied by the Court of Appeals in its initial decision in Cramer could again be applied in the future to a different set of facts. However, a plain reading of the law when coupled with the Supreme Court’s decision suggests it may be in a municipality’s best interest to respond and fulfill a FOIA request within five business days after receiving the request (pursuant to the FOIA statute, a municipality is entitled to seek a ten (10) day extension to comply with the request).
The Supreme Court’s decision that the Courts of Appeals’ opinion was otherwise moot is noteworthy, because the Court thereby affirmed the principle that a public body may render a FOIA lawsuit moot, by belatedly fulfilling a FOIA request, even after a FOIA lawsuit has already been filed. That would not, however, necessarily be the outcome in all FOIA lawsuits. If a court was to find that a public body belatedly fulfilled a FOIA request only because of a FOIA lawsuit, the public body would likely face liability for the belated fulfillment.
Ultimately, the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision is to impose a tighter timeframe on municipalities for fulfilling FOIA requests if they want to assure compliance with the FOIA statute.
Do not hesitate to contact your principal municipal attorney in the event you need assistance with your FOIA process or in responding to FOIA requests.