How quickly must a FOIA request be answered?

A Michigan Supreme Court ruling changes the timeline for a public body to fulfill FOIA requests.

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Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) states that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government, and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees. It continues: “The people shall be informed so that they may fully participate in the democratic process.”

Under FOIA, Michigan residents have the right to request certain information from their government units and elected officials, and those government units must comply, providing the individual with information in compliance with the law, though the public body may charge a fee for costs associated with fulfilling the request. It should be noted that not all information is subject to FOIA, and not all government entities are subject to FOIA.

Michigan’s FOIA requires that a public body respond to a request for public record within five business days after the request is received. In 2016, the Michigan Court of Appeals, in Brandi Cramer v. the Village of Oakley, decided that while a public body must respond to a FOIA request within five business days, there is no specific time frame by which they must fulfill the request. For example, under the Court of Appeals ruling, a public body would have to send a letter stating that the request was granted (or denied) within five business days, but there was not a specific time in which they would be required to actually provide the requested records. This decision effectively held that there was a difference in a public body’s duty to “respond” and “fulfill” a FOIA request.

In April 2017, the Michigan Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals decision in Cramer v Oakley without addressing the merits of the previous opinion. This means public bodies can no longer apply a distinction between responding to a FOIA request and fulfilling it. By vacating the Court of Appeals decision, the Supreme Court is effectively removing the legal distinction that the Court of Appeals had put in place between granting and fulfilling a FOIA request.

While the law requires a response within five business days, this is not a hard and fast rule. The statute includes an exception, allowing a public body to issue a notice, extending for not more than 10 days, the period during which they shall respond. This is allowed once and once only. The Act does not impose a specific timeline for fulfilling a request that has been granted, saying only that the response to a FOIA request must include a “best efforts estimate” regarding the time it will take to fulfill the request.

Michigan State University Extension has training programs on complying with the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. This program is one of many MSU Extension offerings for local governments. Those in MSU Extension that focus on government and public policy provide these various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local public policy and government educator for more information.

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