How long does the government have to reply to your request for information?
The manner in which Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act is to be interpreted has been a hot topic in recent months.
In 2016, the Michigan Court of Appeals rendered an opinion in the case of Cramer v. Oakley, where the court held that a public body’s duty to “grant” and “fulfill” a FOIA request were distinct concepts. Under the rules set forth by the court’s opinion, a public body was only required to respond to a FOIA request within the statutorily prescribed five business days, but could fulfill the request (i.e., actually provide the records) at a later date, as long as there was no inordinate delay. On April 5, 2017, the Supreme Court vacated the decision rendered by the Court of Appeals in Cramer v Oakley. Thus, the distinction between responding and fulfilling a FOIA request is no longer the current law, and public bodies that are subject to the FOIA statute can no longer rely on the concept that granting and fulfilling a FOIA request are distinct or separate from one another.
In the initial Cramer decision, the Court of Appeals reasoned the Village of Oakley satisfied the requirements of the FOIA statute by responding to a FOIA request within three business days of its receipt by means of sending a notice to Cramer indicating that it was granting the FOIA request, would search its records and would provide a copy of all relevant information to Cramer at a later date. Cramer unsuccessfully argued that the village’s failure to fulfill the request by producing the requested documentation within five days violated the FOIA statute. The village subsequently provided the requested records to Cramer at a later date, as it indicated it would do in its initial response.
Cramer appealed the Court of Appeals’ decision to the Michigan Supreme Court, which issued its decision this spring. The Supreme Court vacated the portion of the Court of Appeals’ opinion that discussed the granting and fulfillment distinction, determining that such portion of the opinion was moot since the village had ultimately delivered the documents requested in conjunction with the FOIA request, and thus, there was no longer a controversy or dispute to decide.
While the Supreme Court did not address the merits of the Court of Appeals opinion, the practical effect of the Supreme Court’s order is that distinction between granting and fulfilling a FOIA request set forth by the Court of Appeals is no longer valid and binding law. It is possible the reasoning applied by the Court of Appeals in its initial decision in Cramer could again be applied in the future to a different set of facts. However, a plain reading of the law when coupled with the Supreme Court’s decision suggests it may be in a public body’s best interest to respond and fulfill a FOIA request within five business days after receiving the request (pursuant to the FOIA statute, a body which is subject to the FOIA statute is entitled to seek a 10-day extension to comply with the request).
The Supreme Court’s decision that the Courts of Appeals’ opinion was otherwise moot is noteworthy, because the court thereby affirmed the principle that a public body may render a FOIA lawsuit moot, by belatedly fulfilling a FOIA request, even after a FOIA lawsuit has already been filed. That would not, however, necessarily be the outcome in all FOIA lawsuits. If a court was to find that a public body belatedly fulfilled a FOIA request only because of a FOIA lawsuit, the public body may face liability for the belated fulfillment.
Ultimately, the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision is to impose a tighter timeframe on public bodies for fulfilling FOIA requests if they want to assure compliance with the FOIA statute.