If a public body in Michigan is a plaintiff or defendant in litigation, can the public body deny a Freedom of Information Act request by the legal counsel to another party to the litigation based on a FOIA exemption for requests pertaining “to a civil action in which the requesting party and the public body are parties”? According to the Michigan Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion in the case of Jones Day v Dep’t of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, and at least as it relates to the facts of this case, the answer is no.
Background of the Case
The underlying litigation involves a lawsuit brought by the State of Michigan in state court against chemical companies alleging that the companies improperly released toxic synthetic chemicals called polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”), which found their way into Michigan’s water supplies.
The state lawsuit was transferred to federal court and combined with similar cases from other jurisdictions, and a case management order was entered that precluded participation in discovery.
Jones Day, a law firm representing a defendant company, proceeded to file a state FOIA request with the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (“EGLE”) seeking documentation related to the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.
EGLE denied the request, citing MCL 15.243(1)(v), the exemption cited above pertaining to parties to a civil litigation. Jones Day then filed a FOIA complaint in the Court of Claims, and the Court of Claims granted summary disposition in favor of EGLE. Jones Day appealed.
The Court of Appeals Decision
The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court decision. The Court of Appeals relied upon precedent from a previous case, Taylor v Lansing Bd of Water & Light, in which a friend of the plaintiff to a lawsuit against a public body made a FOIA request after the plaintiff’s own FOIA request was denied by the public body defendant on the basis of MCL 15.243(1)(v). In the Taylor case, the Court of Appeals ruled that the exemption could not be used where, as in the Jones Day case, the party making the FOIA request was not a “party.”
In the Jones Day case, the Court of Appeals, in reaching a similar result, explained that “the Legislature did not act to obviate the Taylor decision and prevent FOIA actions from being filed by best friends, counsels of record, or associates despite this Court’s recognition that a ‘distasteful’ result occurs without such a restriction of the term ‘party.’”
Accordingly, in light of this case, and the Michigan case law it relies upon, public bodies should be aware that the MCL 15.243(1)(v) exemption will likely be strictly construed. If the FOIA requester does not meet the precise legal definition of a “party” in litigation, and instead is merely a friend, agent or legal counsel to a party, then the exemption will likely be denied.
Thaddeus E. Morgan is a shareholder with Fraser Trebilcock and formerly served as President of the firm. Thad is the firm’s Litigation Department Chair and serves as the firm’s State Capital Group voting representative. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (517) 377-0877.