A recent case decided by the Michigan Court of Appeals, Cramer v. Oakley, has shed new insight into what it means for a municipality to timely comply with a FOIA request. The distinction recognized by the court in regards to timely complying with a FOIA request is based on the difference between granting and fulfilling a request.
In Cramer, the plaintiff had submitted six separate FOIA requests seeking information about the Village of Oakley’s reserve police department unit. The requests were submitted on the 15th day of May 2015, which was a Friday. As most municipalities are well aware, the FOIA statute requires a response to a FOIA request within five (5) business days unless it issues a notice to the requesting party extending the period within which it will reply to the request for up to ten (10) additional business days. The Village of Oakley replied to the FOIA requests on May 20, three (3) business days after they received them, stat-ing that the requests were “granted” and that the Village would search its records and provide a copy of all relevant requested documentation at a later date. Plaintiff’s attorney sent a reply arguing that the Village’s action of sending a written statement granting the requests was not sufficient to comply with the FOIA statute and that all documents requested needed to be provided by May 22, 2015, the date which was five (5) business days after the date on which the request was received.
The Village failed to provide all the documents by May 22nd and the plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging the Village had failed to comply with the FOIA statute.
In its response, the Village argued that sending the letters granting the request within the required timeframe and agreeing to produce the requested documents a short time later was not a violation of the FOIA statute. The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed, ultimately deciding that the granting of a request and the delivery of documents were two different actions and that the FOIA statute only requires a granting of the request within the specified timeframe.
The Court was careful to note that public bodies still must be diligent in fulfilling a FOIA response which has been granted, commenting that an inordinate delay in fulfilling a request may still effectively constitute a denial of a request regardless of the public body labeling its response as a “grant” of the FOIA request. Further, the Court referenced the provision of the FOIA statute permitting a court to award punitive damages to FOIA plaintiffs whose requests were subject to an “arbitrary and capricious ‘refusal or delay in disclosing’ public records.”
Ultimately, the Cramer decision is beneficial for municipalities and other public bodies because it allows for increased flexibility to overburdened FOIA coordinators in fulfilling requests. However, municipalities and other public bodies should still assure they have streamlined and effective processes in place for responding to FOIA requests as they are submitted as the law still requires the grant, denial or seeking of a ten (10) day extension for responding to a FOIA request within five (5) business days after the request is received. Further, municipalities are still best served by having a process that allows for the efficient and timely fulfillment of granted FOIA requests so they can avoid further litigation and allegations that they have effectively denied a request they claimed to have granted.
Do not hesitate to contact your principal municipal representative in the event you need assistance with your FOIA process or in responding to FOIA requests.