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Michigan Schools Flooded with FOIA Requests: Are Your FOIA Policies and Procedures Up to Date?

The recent deluge of Freedom of Information Act requests serves as a reminder to schools to ensure that their FOIA policy is up to date and that administrators are well-versed in FOIA guidelines and procedures.

FOIA officers should grant routine FOIA requests as soon as possible to avoid undue delay and the risk of losing track of unfulfilled requests. After receiving a FOIA request, school officials have only five business days to either grant or deny the request, in whole or in part, or issue a notice extending the response deadlines up to an additional 10 business days. A request made by email is not considered received by a school until one day after the email is transmitted. When evaluating whether a FOIA request must be fulfilled, school officials should focus on the public record requested and determine whether that public record is contained in records maintained by the school. School officials should not deny a request simply because it is vague, but should seek clarification from the requestor. If a request seeks a large volume of public records, school officials can notify the requestor that his or her request is granted, but that the records will not be available until a certain date.

School officials should exercise caution when denying FOIA requests. Michigan’s FOIA imposes hefty fines for intentional violations of the Act or bad faith when dealing with a FOIA request. An improper denial of a FOIA request could result in a lawsuit, fines, attorney fee liability, and assessment of punitive damages against the school.

Notice to extend the 10 business day response time should include the date by which school officials will respond. An extension notice must explain why school officials need the extra time, such as to search for responsive documents or to separate exempt from nonexempt material.

Before providing any documents in response to a FOIA request, school officials should determine whether any exemptions apply to the records requested or to specific information within those records. FOIA exempts nine categories of public record information from disclosure. Application of many of the statutory exemptions will require a thorough, case-by-case review. If you are uncertain about an exemption’s applicability, consultation with legal counsel is the safest option.

If your school has not updated its FOIA policy or created and posted its FOIA procedures, guidelines, and a detailed cost itemization sheet, we strongly recommend doing so immediately. A school may not charge a fee to respond to any FOIA request, no matter how large, until legally compliant procedures and guidelines, a public summary of those procedures and guidelines, and a detailed cost itemization sheet are adopted and published on the public body’s website. If your school has not yet implemented FOIA procedures and guidelines, Thrun Law Firm has developed model procedures and guidelines, including a detailed cost itemization sheet, for our retainer clients. If you are interested in these products, please contact our firm. 517.484.8000