District Dinged on FOIA Requests and Ordered to Pay Attorney’s Fees
The Court of Appeals recent decision in Metcalf v Grand Ledge Public Schools (February 24, 2022) concluded the school district violated Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act FOIA) and, as a result, owed plaintiff attorney’s fees and costs. The case arose out of the school district’s decision to terminate its superintendent over a social media post about George Floyd’s death. The superintendent barraged the school district with FOIA requests and, when he did not get all the documents he wanted, filed suit. The trial court dismissed the case and the superintendent appealed.
The Court of Appeals identified three errors committed by the school district and the trial court. First, in response to a FOIA request that contained four items, the school district simply respond, without elaboration, the request was granted in part and denied in part. This was not sufficient. The Court explained that, when denying a request, FOIA specifically required the school district to state the requested record did not exist or was exempt, in whole or in part, from disclosure. The school district had done neither and, therefore, had violated FOIA. Second, in response to two sets of FOIA requests, the school district estimated response times of 30 and 35 days. Given the school district’s estimate it would take 98 hours of work, for the 30-day response, and 19.5 hours of work, for the 35-day response, the Court determined reasonable minds could differ whether the estimates were “best efforts estimates” as required by FOIA. Therefore, the Court sent the issue back to the trial court for resolution.
Finally, the superintendent requested documents relevant to a Board’s decision to terminate his employment, including emails between Board members regardless whether they had been deleted. The school district responded with what was, in essence, an objection, stating:
"[The request] does not describe any public record sufficiently to enable the District to find a public record. Specifically, it is unclear if you are seeking records of any elected official ever communicating with any staff member regarding [the superintendent], or if you are seeking records related to a specific time frame. It is also unclear what you are seeking when you request “deleted” records. If you wish to clarify your request, the District will respond accordingly."
This was not an appropriate response to a FOIA request, the Court held, because FOIA does not establish detailed requirements for a valid request. Instead, “it merely requires that a request ‘describe the public record sufficiently to enable the public body to find the public record.” The Court went on to point out the request was not too overbroad and the district was disingenuous when it claimed not to understand what was meant by “deleted” emails, given universal familiarity with the spam, archive, and trash functions in email systems.
The lesson from Metcalf is not to fool around with FOIA requests. Public bodies, including school districts, are required to scrupulously comply with FOIA requests, even when they come in bushels from a disfavored requester. Otherwise, as in this case, the school district may wind up with egg on its face while it reaches for its wallet to pay plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.