A recent case has helped define the term “personnel file” under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In Copley Press, Inc. v. Board of Education for Peoria School District No. 150, ___ Ill.App.3d ____ , 2005 WL 2000933 (3rd Dist. 2005), the Third District addressed the issue of whether a school district had unlawfully refused to release certain records regarding its superintendent by claiming the documents were part of the superintendent’s “personnel file.” Under the FOIA, public records are presumed to be open and accessible. Documents requested under the Act must be released unless the information is covered by a statutory exemption. One of the exemptions protects an employee’s personnel file from disclosure (5 ILCS 140/7(1)(b)(ii)). The term “personnel file” is not defined in FOIA, and until Copley Press, no case had considered the issue.
In Copley Press, the Peoria School District Board of Education placed its superintendent, Dr. Kay Royster, on paid administrative leave. The Board based its decision on two performance evaluations and a letter from the Board to Royster explaining the reasons for her dismissal. The Peoria Journal Star filed a FOIA request seeking release of the performance evaluations and the letter from the Board to Royster. The Board denied the request, claiming that the documents were part of Royster’s personnel file and exempt from disclosure.
The personnel file exemption provides in relevant part: “(1) The following shall be exempt from inspection and copying:* * *(b) Information that, if disclosed, would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, unless the disclosure is consented to in writing by the individual subjects of 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. Information exempted under this subsection (b) shall include but is not limited to: *** (ii) personnel files and personal information maintained with respect to employees, appointees or elected officials of any public body or applicants for those positions.” (5 ILCS 140/7(1)(b)(ii))
Copley Press (parent company of the Peoria Journal Star) sued the Board seeking release of the documents. The trial court examined the documents in camera and ordered their release. The Board appealed, arguing that the documents in question were properly part of the personnel file and contained personal information. Copley Press argued that documents in a personnel file should only be exempt if their release would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. The appellate court pointed out that the enumerated exemptions such as personnel files are per se exemptions. If the requested documents are properly part of a personnel file, they are exempt from disclosure regardless of whether they constitute an invasion of the employee’s privacy. The court noted that documents could not be exempted from disclosure simply by placing them in a personnel file, but if documents are properly part of a personnel file, they are exempt.
Next, the court had to determine whether the letter and evaluations were properly part of Royster’s personnel file. The court listed types of documents that could be expected to be found in a personnel file, such as “a resume or application, an employment contract, policies signed by the employee, payroll information, emergency contact information, training records, performance evaluations and disciplinary records.” Based on this list, the court found that the performance evaluations were clearly exempt, and that the letter was exempt as both a summary of the performance evaluations and a record of disciplinary action.
In summary, information cannot be made exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act simply by placing it in an employee’s personnel file, but if the information is properly part of a personnel file, it is exempt from disclosure.