FOIA Tug-of-War: Kieken v. City of Joliet, 2023 IL App (3d) 220392

October 19, 2023

John Kieken, a plaintiff associated with the organization Stop NorthPoint, LLC, filed a complaint against the City of Joliet, seeking to compel the City to produce documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). These documents pertained to traffic and environmental studies related to NorthPoint Development, a proposed industrial business park that Kieken’s organization opposed.

The City initially denied Kieken’s FOIA request, but eventually tendered the requested documents. Despite this, the circuit court denied Kieken’s request to compel the City’s compliance with FOIA, considering his request moot since the documents were already provided. However, Kieken was still awarded statutory attorney fees as the prevailing party, a decision that the City appealed.

This legal battle traces back to Kieken’s efforts to obtain crucial information before a scheduled hearing intended to decide the fate of the NorthPoint Development. His emergency motion for a temporary restraining order, aimed at pausing the City’s proceedings until the requested documents were reviewed, was denied. Yet, it was in the wake of this motion that the City released the documents.

The pivotal issue that transitioned this case from a straightforward FOIA request to a complex legal skirmish was the awarding of attorney fees. Kieken claimed over $62,000 in attorney fees and costs, justifying the amount based on the complexity of the case and the expertise of his lawyers. The City objected, citing the fees as excessive.

The circuit court, wielding its discretion, trimmed down the awarded fees to $20,742.50. It considered the local market rates and deemed Kieken’s requested hourly rates as exorbitant. The court also scrutinized the hours billed in relation to the unsuccessful temporary restraining order request and the fee litigation, ultimately reducing them.

The City’s stand was underpinned by the assertion that Kieken was not entitled to any attorney fees as he didn’t receive court-ordered relief. Kieken’s cross-appeal contended the court’s downsizing of his attorneys’ hourly rates and work hours was arbitrary. Both arguments were dissected under the appellate court’s lens.

A key element of the appellate court’s analysis centered on the prerequisite for a section 11(i) fee award under FOIA. The court found that court-ordered relief wasn’t a mandatory prerequisite for a fee award. Applying a four-part test that included the lawsuit’s necessity and its role in procuring the requested documents, the court upheld the fee award.

The court’s meticulous appraisal of the attorney fees, leaning on local standards and the nature of the case, exemplified judicial discretion. It confronted and dismissed the City’s argument that Kieken’s choice of a legal route over a less time-consuming FOIA review process should influence the fee award. The court held that the fees allowed by the circuit court were not excessive given the circumstances.

In conclusion, this case underscores the intricate dance between FOIA requests, the judicial interpretation of “prevailing parties,” and the awarding of attorney fees. While the City of Joliet may have complied with the FOIA request, the subsequent legal battle over attorney fees highlights the complexities embedded in such cases and sets a nuanced precedent for future legal engagements of this nature.

The Illinois Third District Appellate Court’s full Opinion can be found here.

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