Public Employee Emails Subject to FOIA

Even when using private email or devices, employee emails are subject to FOIA and must be included in a reasonably adequate search.

By Joshua Herman


On August 9, 2016, the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (“PAC”) issued Binding Opinion 16-006, which addressed the Freedom of Information Act’s (“FOIA”) application to employee email. The opinion unequivocally held that public employee emails were subject to FOIA, requiring that public bodies conduct a reasonable search for these responsive records, which includes searching public employees’ private emails.

Background of Request for Employee Emails

In January of 2016, CNN submitted a FOIA request to the Chicago Police Department (“CPD”) that sought “all emails related to Laquan McDonald from Police Department email accounts and personal email accounts where business was discussed” for 12 specific officers during various dates. CPD eventually provided its response on April 19, 2016. CPD’s response consisted of a series of emails with attachments totaling over 500 pages. CPD did not cite any exemptions nor did it provide an explanation with its untimely response.

Request for Review by PAC

CNN filed a Request for Review with the PAC, claiming the CPD’s response did not contain any responsive records despite the fact the CPD claimed that the provided emails were “all of the records found in their search.” CNN asserted that the CPD did not conduct an adequate search because CPD’s response did not contain “a single responsive email.”

Investigation of Whether Requested Employee Emails were Subject to FOIA

The PAC began its investigation by asking the CPD for:

“A detailed description of the processing of [the] FOIA request and the measures taken by CPD to search for responsive records, including a description of the specific recordkeeping systems that were searched, the method of that search, and the specific individuals who were consulted.”

CPD responded that it searched its email system for the 12 named officers for the requested time periods, resulting in 47 e-mails being located. Some of these e-mails were described as being “News Clips” and 12 of the emails were copies of the same two emails.

CNN pointed-out that CPD’s response indicated that the CPD did not search for officers’ emails on any other platform or device, including personal email accounts. CNN argued that:

“Even if the Department does not retain control over personal email or devices, it still has a duty to request copies of such communications that relate to the officer’s public service role and/or in the performance of their government function.”

CNN further questioned how the CPD conducted its search:

“Regardless of the email accounts and devices actually searched, it is entirely unclear to us the search terms and/or parameters the Department actually undertook in conducting its search. Obviously, the search terms used, and the review procedures utilized that would identify highly-relevant documents that might not be found using a search term, are crucial to obtaining CNN’s satisfaction that the Department has engaged in a fulsome search responsive to CNN’s FOIA request.”

The PAC then requested that CPD describe the methods it used to search CPD e-mail accounts, including the particular search terms used.

CPD responded by stating that it searched the email accounts of the 12 named police officers for the search term “Laquan McDonald” during the date ranges requested. CPD also confirmed that it had not conducted a search of any personal e-mail accounts, arguing that e-mails on those accounts are not “public records.” CNN responded that:

”Giving public officials like police officers carte blanche to evade FOIA laws by using personal email for public purposes would eviscerate Illinois FOIA. Moreover, public officials would have an incentive to avoid FOIA by deliberately communicating about sensitive or controversial topics on private email. This flies in the face of the very purpose of public information laws.”

Analysis of whether employee emails subject to FOIA

The PAC began its analysis of whether the private emails of public employees may be subject to FOIA by determining whether they could be “public records.” The PAC addressed the definition of “public records” as it was discussed in City of Champaign v. Madigan, a case that held that some government official text messages are public records. According to the appellate court, to be a “public record,” the communication must

  1. Pertain to the transaction of public business and it must have been
  2. Prepared by,
  3. Prepared for,
  4. Used by,
  5. Received by,
  6. Possessed by, or
  7. Controlled by a public body.

After reviewing the City of Champaign case, the PAC explained that when individual public employees act in their official capacity, they are transacting the public business of the public body. The PAC found that CPD’s interpretation would “undercut the principle that public bodies act through their employees” and that excluding all communications on personal devices or accounts, regardless of whether they pertain to transaction of public business, wrongly focuses solely on the method of communication rather than on the content of the communication.

The CPD had also argued that personal email accounts are not subject FOIA because CPD does “possess or control” those records. The PAC rejected this argument, explaining that an agency always acts through its employees and officials and that if one of them possesses what would otherwise be agency records, the records do not lose their agency character just because the employee or official stores them outside of the agency.

The PAC explained that the CPD’s argument “would yield absurd results by enabling public officials to sidestep FOIA and conceal how they conduct their public duties simply by communicating via personal [electronic] devices.”

CPD also argued that searching personal email accounts would subject employees to unreasonable and unnecessary invasions of personal privacy, an exemption under Section 7(1)(c) of FOIA. However, this exemption expressly states that “disclosure of information that bears on the public duties of public employees and officials shall not be considered an invasion of personal privacy.” Consequently, according to the PAC, any emails exchanged by CPD employees pertaining to Laquan McDonald would pertain to public business and accessing them would not be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Although personal accounts can contain public records, the PAC explained:

“[t]he fact that a personal e-mail account is used to send or receive public records does not transform all communications sent or received on that account, in particular those with no connection to the transaction of public business, into public records that must be disclosed in accordance with FOIA.”

The PAC noted that the CPD did not assert that it asked employees whether they possessed responsive emails, nor did the CPD assert that any employee objected to providing responsive emails. Indeed, the CPD indicated that it took no action to ascertain whether its employee’s had responsive records. The PAC explained that although a public body need not search every record system, it cannot limit its search to only one system if others are likely to contain records responsive to a request.

While FOIA does not specify the manner in which a public body must conduct its search for records, the PAC stated that ordering the CPD officers to produce any responsive records they possessed may have satisfied CPD’s obligation to conduct a reasonable search. In support of this, the PAC cited cases that hold, absent a lack of good faith, a public employee’s search of his personal e-mail and confirmation that he did not locate responsive records satisfies the public body’s obligation to conduct an adequate search.  In light of FOIA, CPD could not simply decline to search for responsive emails on an officer’s private email account.

The PAC also addressed whether CPD’s search term of “Laquan McDonald” was adequate under the circumstances. The emails CPD did produce demonstrated that officers referred to McDonald in multiple ways, including misspellings and the use of only one part of his name. The PAC explained that under these circumstances, the singular search term was “not reasonably calculated to discover all relevant records.”

CPD Ordered to Obtain Employee Emails Subject to FOIA

The PAC found CPD’s response and underlying search to be inadequate under FOIA. The PAC’s binding opinion required the CPD to conduct a search of the personal e-mail accounts of the relevant CPD officers. The PAC suggested that, at a minimum, this requires the CPD to ask the officers whether they possess responsive records, and if so, requiring the officers to provide copies of those records to the CPD.

The PAC further directed CPD to expand its search terms to more reasonably attempt to locate responsive records by including:

  • Alternate name spellings,
  • Names of officers,
  • The incident number,
  • The location of the incident,
  • And a physical description of Laquan McDonald.

Conclusion and next steps

In summary, the PAC’s Binding Opinion held that public bodies must take reasonable steps to locate all public records responsive to a FOIA request. Because employee emails are subject to FOIA to the extent they are public records, regardless of whether they are stored in or sent by a private account or private device. Based on this opinion, in order to comply with FOIA, public bodies should investigate whether employees’ private email, devices and text messages contain responsive records. This means, at a minimum, public bodies must at least ask their employees if they possess responsive records.

This PAC opinion also requires public bodies to craft searches reasonably designed to find relevant documents by using multiple search terms that could be used in or related to relevant records.

Of course, every situation is different based on the facts and circumstances involved. A public body should consider seeking legal advice to ensure it has complied with its legal obligations under FOIA.

Click here for a copy of the complete binding opinion regarding the disclosure of E-Mails from Public Employees’ Personal E-Mail Accounts Pertaining to Transaction of Public Business and the Duty to Conduct a Reasonable Search for Responsive Records.

Posted in FOIA/OMA, Joshua Herman, Local Government and Public Finance, Police