First District affirms denial of legal aid group's request for attorney's fees in FOIA case

By Andrew Thomason | Mar 4, 2014


An appeals panel has upheld the denial of a Chicago legal aid group's request for attorney's fees in its fight to obtain records from the state's corrections department.

Handed down Feb. 27, the unpublished order from the First District Appellate Court stems from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request Uptown People's Law Center made in 2011 with the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC)

The non-profit law center, which focuses on prisoner civil rights, landlord tenant and public benefits issues, asked IDOC for records relating to prison conditions, facility maintenance and sanitation reports.

Uptown then accused IDOC of not acting within the bounds of Illinois' right to access law and filed a complaint on Jan. 14, 2012 stating as much.

The law center's complaint sought a declaratory judgment that IDOC's failure to provide the requested records violated FOIA. It also asked for an order requiring the corrections department to provide the requested documents and pay for its attorney's fees.

FOIA allows for the awarding of attorney's fees when a plaintiff prevails in a FOIA proceeding. Uptown filed a separate petition for attorney's fees in September 2012.

In November 2012, IDOC complied with the FOIA request without a court order and delivered the documents relating to prison conditions, facility maintenance and sanitation reports to Uptown People's Law Center.

The law center then filed an amended attorney's fee petition, arguing that a court order forcing a government entity to comply with FOIA and release records was not required to "prevail" when it came to the awarding of attorney's fees.

IDOC, however, claimed Uptown's complaint was moot because it complied with FOIA before the original lawsuit was settled. IDOC further argued that the law center was not entitled to attorney's fees because it represented itself pro se.

Uptown People's Law Center countered, noting its nonprofit status as a legal services provider that was represented by two in-house lawyers.

The trial court agreed with IDOC, and dismissed the case in December 2012.

In its recent order, the appeals panel agreed that Uptown was not entitled to attorney's fees, but disagreed with the lower court's ruling relating to whether a plaintiff can "prevail" in a FOIA case absent a court order.

On behalf of the panel, Justice Terrance Lavin wrote in the order that the term "prevails" could mean either the disgorgement of records sought under FOIA before a case was settled, or the forced release of records by the court.

Rounded out by Justices Nathaniel Howse and James Fitzgerald Smith, the appeals panel looked to the Illinois General Assembly's intent in drafting FOIA to reach its ruling.

Most recently, the legislature amended FOIA to allow for the collection of attorney's fees when the plaintiff "prevails" instead of "substantially prevails," as the law previously stated.

Lavin wrote that the "modification was intended to ensure that successful plaintiffs could obtain attorney fees regardless of the extent to which they had prevailed, no matter how slight."

"Thus," he explained, "if a plaintiff files a FOIA action with respect to five documents and is successful with respect to only one, the plaintiff is entitled to the attorney fees incurred with respect to that document, despite having failed with respect to the remaining four."

The legislature also changed FOIA to force the court to award attorney's fees if a plaintiff "prevails" in a FOIA case. Previously, it was up to the court's discretion whether to award these fees or not.

"We find no indication that the legislature intended to abandon Illinois' policy of awarding fees under FOIA despite the absence of a court order," Lavin wrote.

But, the appeals panel still denied Uptown's request for attorney's fees, determining that the law center was not required to spend money specifically for pursuing FOIA requests.

The awarding of legal fees as outlined in FOIA is to ensure citizens can enforce the law and to avoid discouraging people from filing FOIA cases, not to award attorneys or punish the government, the panel held.

"Legal fees were never a burden that Uptown was required to overcome in order to pursue its FOIA requests," Lavin wrote.

He also wrote that the two attorneys who represented Uptown in the matter "had no expectation of receiving additional fees from Uptown for performing this work" because they were employees of the law center.

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