This letter, received December 6, 2013, from the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Division tells why:
Via electronic mail
Mr. Cal Skinner
275 Meridian Street
Crystal Lake, Illinois 60014
Ms. Jan Weech
Offìce of the McHenry County Sheriff
2200 N. Seminary Avenue
Woodstock, Illinois 60098
RE: FOIA Request for Review 2013 PAC 26085
Dear Mr. Skinner and Ms. Weech:
This determination letter is issued pursuant to section 9.5(f) ofthe Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 ILCS 140/9.5(f) (West 2012)). For the reasons that follow, the Public Access Bureau concludes that the Office of the McHenry County Sheriff (Sheriffs Office) did not violate FOIA by withholding the names of certain people for whom Undersheriff Andrew Zinke wrote letters of recommendation.
On September 6, 2013, Mr. Cal Skinner submitted a FOIA request to the Sheriffs Office seeking “letters of recommendation written by Andrew Zinke since he was appointed Undersherìff.” FN l On September 16, 2013, the Sheriffs Office provided Mr. Skinner copies of the letters but redacted the names of the individuals recommended by Undersheriff Zinke pursuant to section 7(1)(b) and section 7(1)(c) of FOIA (5 ILCS 140/7(1)(b), (1)(0) (West 2012)). Section 7(1)(b) exempts from disciosure “private information.” Section 7(1)(c) exempts records that, if disclosed, would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Section 7(1)(c) further provides:
“Unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” means the disclosure
of information that is highly personal or objectionable to a
reasonable person and in which the subject’s right to privacy
outweighs any legitimate public interest in obtaining the
information. The disclosure of information that bears on the public
duties of public employees and officials Shall not be considered an
invasion of personal privacy.”
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FN 1. lE~mail from firstname.lastname@example.org to McHenry County Sheriffs Office (September 6, 2013).
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On September 17, 2013, Mr. Skinner submitted a Request for Review of the Sheriffs Ofñce’s response to his FOIA request to the Office of the Public Access Counselor. On October 7, 2013, this office forwarded a copy of the Request for Review to the Sheriffs Offlce and asked it to provide a basis for the asserted exemptions. On October 15, 2013, the Sheriffs Office responded that identifying the named individuals would result in an unwarranted invasion of privacy for those individuals and that there is no public interest that outweighs their right to privacy. The Sheriffs office also provided us with unredacted copies of the responsive records, which consist of three letters of recommendation sent by Undersheriff Zinke.
Mr. Skinner responded on October 18, 2013, and states that “if any of the individuals have been terminated from the Sheriffs Department and later have been given favorable recommendations, that would be in the public interest to bring to light.” FN 2 On October 22, 2013, the Sheriffs Office confirmed in an e-mail to an Assistant Attorney General in the Public Access Bureau that only one of the three individuals named in the letters was a former employee of the Sheriffs Office, and that this individual left the Sheriffs Office in good standing.
All public records in the possession or custody of a public body are presumed to be open to inspection and copying. FN 3 5 ILCS 140/12 (West 2010). A public body “has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence” that a record is exempt from disclosure. 5 ILCS 140/12 (West 2011 Supp.). The exemptions from disclosure are to be narrowly construed. Lieber v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois Univ., 176 Ill. 2d 401, 408 (I 997).
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FN 2. Email from email@example.com to Matt Regina, Assistant Attorney General, Offîce of the Illinois Attorney General (October 18, 2013).
FN 3.Section 2(c) of FOIA (5 ILCS 120/2(c) (West 2012)) defines “public records” to include “all records, reports, forms, writings, letters, memoranda, books, papers, maps, photographs, microñlms, cards, tapes, recordings, electronic data processing records, electronic communications, recorded information and all other documentary materials pertaíning to the transaction of public business[.]” (Emphasis added.) We make no finding as to whether the letters of recommendation pertain to the transaction of public business, but assume for purposes of this determination that the letters are public records under FOIA.
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The Illinois Supreme Court has held that, for purposes of FOIA, a name is not “personal information” per se. Lieber v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University, 176 Ill.2d 401, 412 (1997). Depending upon the context, however, the disclosure of a name can nonetheless constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. This office has previously determined that applications for employment are exempt from disclosure under section 7(1)(c), unless the applicant is selected for the position. See Ill. Att’y Gen. PAC Pre-Auth. a16805, issued April 2l, 2010, at l-2. In that determination, this office concluded that publication of an individual’s application for a position can negatively impact that individual’s current employment and the release of personal information about applicants may also negatively impact a public body’s ability to attract qualified applicants for open positions. See Ill. Att’y Gen. PAC Pre-Auth. a16805, issued April 21, 2010, at 1.
The letters of recommendation at issue were written on behalf of individuals who were seeking new employment. These letters are highly personal to the individuals named in the letters, and disclosure of their names could potentially have adverse consequences on their current employment or future employment prospects. Mr. Skinner asserted that there is a public interest in disclosure of the names of any individuals who received favorable recommendations from Undersheriff Zinke despite being terminated from the Sheriffs Office. The Sheriffs Office, however, has confirmed for this office that none of the individuals in question were terminated from the Sheriffs Office. Based on the available information, the asserted public interest in disclosure does not exist and therefore does not outweigh the subjects’ right to privacy. [Emphasis added by McHenry County Blog.] Accordingly, we conclude that the Sheriffs Office properly redacted the names pursuant to section 7(1)(c) of FOIA.
Because our determination that the Sheriffs Office may withhold the names of the individuals pursuant to section 7(1)(c), we decline to address the assertion of section 7(1)(b). The Public Access Counselor has determined that resolution of this matter does not require the issuance of a binding opinion. Should you have any questions, please contact me at (312) 814-5383. This correspondence shall serve to close this file.
Very truly yours,
Assistant Attorney General
Public Access Bureau