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US Court of Appeals Remands FOIA Suit for Dismissal

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit remanded in May 2012 a state Freedom of Information Act suit that pitted the Chicago Tribune against the University of Illinois for action by the state court. The court directed dismissal by reason of lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Plaintiff Chicago Tribune, in an effort to further their series “Clout Goes to College,” which exposed University of Illinois policy of admitting applicants who did not meet entrance criteria, but who were children of well-placed supporters of the university, lodged a state FOIA request purporting to compel the university to release relevant parental information, which would lead to their goal – student names.

The university responded with an exemption to the state FOIA that excepted “[i]nformation specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or state law…” pointing to the federal grant, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), as the statute actuating the exemption. This act prohibits the release of students’ personal information as condition of receiving the grant. The Tribune brought the issue before a federal district court in anticipation of a federal defense. They sought declaratory judgment that the university misunderstood FERPA, that FERPA was simply setting conditions under which an educational institution was eligible to receive their grant. The district court declared for the Tribune and awarded them summary judgment.

The matter went before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. In analysis, the court addressed the issue of subject matter jurisdiction, stating it was an issue of state law, and “it is not possible to sue an arm of state government in federal court to vindicate a claim under state law.”

The United States, in an amicus curae brief, supported the university’s understanding of FERPA and noted serious doubt as to the ambit of subject matter jurisdiction therein, that the Tribune’s claim to the information sought arose out of state law.

After reviewing both parties’ supplemental briefs justifying subject matter jurisdiction, both parties citing Grable, the court referenced case support establishing that potential federal defense is not sufficient to create federal jurisdiction. Even more relevant to the issue was the matter of conditionality as applied to the excepting statute – FERPA. The court held that the disclosure condition of FOIA depended on whether there was an option left open to non-disclosure in accepting FERPA. It was clear in participation with FERPA that disclosure of student information was not an option, and therefore, the university was contractually bound to non-disclosure, and thus excepted of FOIA with respect to student information.

The court noted that neither side established federal subject matter jurisdiction and remanded the cause to the state court with directions to dismiss. See: Chicago Tribune Co. v. Board of Trustees of University of Illinois, 680 F.3d 1001, (7th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Chicago Tribune Co. v. Board of Trustees of University of Illinois