Freedom of Information Act case argued in Iron County
By NIKKI YOUNK
CRYSTAL FALLS – A resident of the Iron County Medical Care Facility (ICMCF) in Crystal Falls Township has filed a civil lawsuit against the facility, alleging that it has not lawfully complied with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Enacted federally in 1966, FOIA allows citizens to obtain access to public records with some exceptions. The state of Michigan passed its own version of FOIA in 1976.
ICMCF’s attorney Kenneth Lane claimed that resident Patrick Ward’s prolific FOIA requests to the facility, which amounted to about one per day since January 2013, were “overly broad” and “overly burdensome.” As a result, he advised ICMCF to discontinue responding to the requests.
Ward and his attorney Torger Omdahl contend that such an action placed ICMCF in violation of FOIA.
Attorneys for both parties were in Iron County Trial Court Wednesday for a hearing on the matter.
Due to a conflict of interest, Dickinson County Circuit Court Judge Richard Celello presided over the case instead of Iron County Trial Court Judge C. Joseph Schwedler.
Omdahl explained that Ward, who is blind and disabled, filed FOIA requests with ICMCF throughout 2013 for information related to ICMCF Administrator Chester Pintarelli’s salary, fringe benefits, payroll information, checks, and employment contracts.
Citing the fact that ICMCF has more than 300 employees at its disposal, Omdahl estimated that it should have taken only 10 to 15 minutes to find the information Ward requested.
Furthermore, Omdahl pointed out that ICMCF’s position that it could deny Ward’s requests for being overly burdensome is not legally sound.
“I can find no reference to the concept of overly burdensome or anything like that in FOIA,” he said. “To me, and I’ve done a lot of FOIA cases over the past 25 years, this is about as strange a case as I’ve seen.”
Omdahl added that Ward is looking for a judgment against ICMCF requiring the facility to comply with FOIA for his and any other citizen’s requests, to pay punitive damages in the amount of $500, and to pay attorney fees.
According to Lane, by August 2013, it became impossible for ICMCF staff to keep up with Ward’s requests. He noted that although ICMCF has over 300 employees, only two of them are qualified to go through public records and redact any confidential information not subject to FOIA.
“The purpose of FOIA is to provide public access to documents, not to create an intolerable burden on public bodies,” said Lane. “At some point, enough is enough.”
Judge Celello agreed with Omdahl that ICMCF’s “overly burdensome” defense was not valid. He said that only a court, and not ICMCF itself, can determine what constitutes “overly burdensome.” In addition, he hoped to send a strong message to ICMCF regarding appropriate FOIA responses.
However, Judge Celello was still unclear as to whether or not ICMCF staff sufficiently understood what documents Ward was requesting, and if those documents existed.
For example, neither of the parties were sure of what Ward was requesting when he asked to see “current budget provisions.”
Lane believed that a single “current budget provisions” document did not exist, and that the information would have to be pulled from different sources. Omdahl said that all the necessary information would probably be contained within ICMCF’s budget document.
Judge Celello said that Omdahl will have to establish that Ward sufficiently identified the documents in his requests and that the documents did indeed exist in order to win the case. He put off judgment over punitive damages and attorney fees to a future hearing at a date yet to be determined.
Nikki Younk’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.