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Bitterman v. Village of Oakley

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Public Documents
  • Date of Decision
    January 22, 2015
  • Outcome
    Remanded for Decision in Accordance with Ruling
  • Case Number
    309 Mich.App. 53
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Appellate Court
  • Type of Law
    Civil Law
  • Themes
    Access to Public Information
  • Tags
    Right to Information

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

Shannon Bitterman requested the names of the police officers and reservists from the Oakley police department under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). After this was denied, she requested the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of every donor of the Village of Oakley Police Donation Fund, which the village council also denied.  The Michigan Court of Appeal found that the names, addresses, and numbers of the donors were not exempted under the FOIA and ordered this information to be released.


Facts

On March 20, 2013, Shannon Bitterman made a two-part request under the FOIA, seeking records, documents, and information about Oakley police reservists for the three years prior. She also requested a copy of an audio recording from a town council meeting that had taken place on September 13, 2011. The village clerk denied both requests on the ground of a civil litigation exemption. Bitterman then filed a complaint with the circuit court, claiming that her requests had been wrongfully denied, and submitted another request to the village council, asking for a list containing the names, full addresses, and telephone numbers of every donor of the Village of Oakley Police Donation Fund for the previous five years. The village clerk denied the request for donor information under the privacy exemption. Bitterman subsequently amended her complaint to include allegations that her second FOIA request had been wrongfully denied.

On April 19, 2013, the Village of Oakley then sent Bitterman another letter, stating that it was denying her FOIA request because she had “failed to sufficiently identify the information she sought.” It also denied her request for the audio recording, claiming it had been destroyed prior to Bitterman’s submission of her FOIA request.

Both parties filed cross motions for summary disposition. In its motion, the Village of Oakley argued that the information on the police reservists was exempt from disclosure because: Bitterman’s request was not specific enough because they do not maintain a list of active or inactive police reserves, the disclosure of the police reservists is protected by numerous FOIA exemptions, and the privacy exemption is applicable. Bitterman argued that Oakley should not be able to assert the additional defenses from its April 19, 2013, letter.

The circuit court found that the privacy exemption, (MCL 15.243(1)(a)), applied to Bitterman’s request for the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the donors to the police fund, which were, therefore, exempt from disclosure. It further held that MCL 15.243(1)(s)(vii) exempted from disclosure the names of active police reservists. The names of inactive police reservists were not exempt, “pursuant to either the law enforcement exemption or the privacy exemption,” and the court ordered that the nonexempt information be disclosed. The court also determined that Oakley did not have to disclose the audio recording because it did not exist when Bitterman made her FOIA request. The circuit court issued an injunction on October 10, 2014, that prohibited Oakley’s police department from operating; as a result, all of Oakley’s police reservists are now inactive.

As a result, on October 14, 2014, the village council authorized the release of the names of any police officers and reservists who had served.


Decision Overview

In a decision by Riordan J, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court’s grant of summary disposition in favor of the Village of Oakley to the extent that the court had declined to order disclosure of the names of the donors to the police fund. The Court believed that the circuit court had erred as a matter of law by ruling that the information was exempt from disclosure under the FOIA. The Court remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion as to whether the police reservists qualify as law enforcement officers or agents within the meaning of MCL 15.243(1)(s)(viii). The Court agreed with the circuit court in the other aspects of the circuit court’s decision.


Decision Direction

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Mixed Outcome

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