Access to Records & FOIA
Take home message: Requests for access to U-M records of any kind - whether through FOIA, a subpoena, or a simple request - should be taken seriously and action taken promptly, keeping in mind both our obligations to disclose information in certain situations and our obligations to protect or withhold information in other circumstances.
- The main ways that access to U-M records may be sought are through the Freedom of Information Act, a subpoena, or a simple request - either by a person seeking access to a record pertaining to them (such as a student or patient seeking their own records), or by a person seeking access to a record that doesn't pertain to them (such as a parent seeking their child's record, or a potential employer seeking a student's record).
- Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) - as a public institution, U-M is subject to provisions of the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Under FOIA, members of the public have the right to inspect and receive copies of public records maintained by U-M, regardless of what form the record is in (e.g., any electronic or written format). There are some exemptions under the Act, ranging from matters of privacy to confidential research-related information, where the law recognizes that the public interest may be better served by not disclosing information. The FOIA Office (within the Office of the Vice President for Communications) administers FOIA requests on behalf of U-M, and maintains FAQs on FOIA. See also the Michigan Attorney General's site on FOIA for further information.
- Subpoenas - a subpoena is a legal tool used to gather information, such as in litigation. A subpoena directed to U-M could seek a variety of information on a student or an employee, present or former. If a subpoena is received, it is important that U-M responds to it in a timely manner, but also in accordance with privacy laws. If you receive a subpoena, you should contact one of these offices immediately before taking further action:
[see People to talk to below for specific contact names]
- Student Records: A subpoena for student records should be sent directly to the University Registrar's Office for handling.
- Employment Records: A subpoena received for employment records should be directed to Human Resources. If the employee works on campus it should go to Central Human Resources or if the employee works at UMHS, it should go to Medical Human Resources.
- Medical Records. A subpoena for medical records should be sent directly to the Medical Records Department at UMHS.
- Physician/Doctor Subpoena. A subpoena directed to a Physician or a Doctor should be sent to Health Legal Services for handling.
- Any subpoenas that do not fit in the above categories should be sent to the Office of General Counsel for review and handling.
- Other requests for information - a person may request his or her own student, employee or patient file, without needing to use a subpoena or other legal mechanism. However, without a valid subpoena OR a written authorization from the person to whom the requested file relates (or otherwise as required by Michigan law), U-M will not release private information about another person to an outside third party.
- If someone requests information from you and you are not sure whether or not it should be given to them, contact one of the specialist records offices (the same as for subpoenas, listed above) or the Office of the General Counsel.
- If you want to learn more about FOIA and handling document requests, the FOIA Office is happy to come and speak to your department.
- There are strict time frames for responding under the Freedom of Information Act: the University has only a very limited amount of time to respond to a request, so it is important to notify the FOIA Office immediately - before you even begin searching for or copying documents.
- Subpoenas need to be actioned quickly, but their scope needs to be carefully considered by someone with experience in the area. If your department receives a subpoena, contact the relevant office (listed above) as soon as you can, for advice on how to proceed.
- Keep in mind that some information held by U-M is clearly public information, and is not sensitive or private in any way. Information of a public nature, such as School/College publications, or information readily available on the U-M website, may be provided to outsiders who request it, without a need to go through formal processes (unless you consider that it would be better in the circumstances for them to formalize the request, such as through a FOIA request).
If you want to talk to someone about FOIA, contact the FOIA Office in the Office of the Vice President for Communications on 734-763-5082 (all campuses). On the U-M Dearborn campus, you may also contact Judy Modelski. On the U-M Flint campus, you may also contact Jennifer Hogan.
If you receive a subpoena, contact Debbie Harju in the Registrar's Office, Janet Gilson in Central HR, Paula Gould in Medical HR , Lisa Richardson in Health Legal Services, or Kris Snook in the Office of the General Counsel. See above for an explanation of which office handles which kinds of subpoenas.