ANN ARBOR, MI — The University of Michigan is being sued by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni over alleged violations of the Freedom of Information Act.
In December, ACTA filed a complaint in the Michigan Court of Claims on behalf of Lance J. Johnson, a UM Law School graduate who made a gift to the school in 2007. Johnson previously said the gift was for an annual legal seminar to study the feasibility of appointing independent legal counsel for children involved in custody disputes. But Johnson claims the law school only “sporadically” had the workshop.
ACTA made a routine FOIA request seeking e-mail correspondence relating to the workshop on March 3, 2020, according to the complaint. UM responded a week later and extended its deadline by 10 days, only to respond five days after the extended deadline when it issued a best-efforts cost estimate in connection with the request, the complaint states.
UM estimated it would take just more than six hours to complete the request for $259.12, the complaint states. ACTA paid the fees in April, but the university did not acknowledge having received the payment until mid-June, and UM extended its deadline to Aug. 21 to complete the request, according to the complaint.
No documents were produced in August, and when ACTA followed up in October, the university gave a new estimated deadline of Oct. 30, the complaint states. After ACTA requested a status update in late October, UM said it would not provide records but rather an update in the following business days, according to the complaint.
ACTA threatened legal action, and in mid-November, the university produced a “partial response,” indicating it would provide a complete response by Dec. 9, the complaint states.
However, the university has not produced a complete response to date.
“ACTA has now waited over five months for records that, by the university own admission, should have taken no longer than seven hours to produce,” the complaint reads.
ACTA claims that the multiple extensions issued by the university are illegal under FOIA and requests that UM provide all documents sought in the FOIA request, as well as monetary relief, the complaint states.
“Transparency, accountability, and respect for donor intent should be at the heart of every college or university,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of ACTA. “The fact that such a prestigious public institution is obstructing a single donor’s wish to see the financial records connected to his gift is disheartening. I would have preferred not to resort to legal action, but (UM’s) failure to adequately respond to our request has given us no other option.”
ACTA’s deposit was sent during UM’s two-week stay-in-place order in October, and there was a delay in its receipt by the university, UM Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said. During the 2020 calendar year, UM received more than 1,150 FOIA requests, a record-high number, Fitzgerald said.
The FOIA office is nearing completion of its review of additional documents, Fitzgerald said.
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