Circuit clerks grapple with space crunch for document storage; hope e-business policy will soon be created

Bethany Krajelis Aug. 16, 2012, 6:37am




Throwing away old court documents isn't as easy it sounds for county circuit clerks.

When they want to get rid of documents from closed cases in any given year, circuit clerks throughout the state must adhere to numerous guidelines laid out in a nearly 200-page manual from the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) in order to ensure proper privacy and record keeping standards are met.

In most instances, they need to create a permanent record of the cases they seek to dispose and deposit a copy of the microfilm with state archives before they can even get permission from the administrative office to go ahead with disposal.

Despite all the rules circuit clerks must follow when it comes to document disposal, accidents happen.

For instance, media reports earlier this month shed light on an incident here in Madison County, where court documents containing personal information sat in a dumpster for weeks after a vendor failed to pick up the documents for recycling as scheduled.

Judy Nelson, the interim circuit clerk, said her office followed proper protocol, but that for some reason, an employee in her office didn't meet the recycling hauler to pick up the documents for recycling, which left the documents in the bin for weeks before they were discovered and disposed of.

Deborah Seyller, the circuit clerk in Kane County who is involved with the Illinois Association of Circuit Clerks, described the incident as "every clerk's worse nightmare."

But given the amount of paperwork and manual filing that circuit clerk's offices throughout the state handle on a daily basis, Seyller said there are always chances for human error to occur.

Seyller and Nelson said that creating a statewide procedure for electronic court business, something that is currently being discussed by a high court committee, could help alleviate some of their concerns while making the process of filing and storing documents more efficient.

Madison County incident

Earlier this month, some area media outlets responded to a tip that court documents had been found in an open recycling bin behind a record storage facility in Wood River.

Some of the documents found included the personal information of court litigants and victims seeking orders of protection, such as their names, addresses and social security numbers.

John Barberis Jr., a local attorney who is running for Madison County circuit clerk in the November election, said an individual who wished to remain anonymous notified him that court documents had been left in plain sight in a dumpster at the county's Wood River facility.

He said he went to the facility that night to verify the call and discovered the dumpster "was completely full of records."

"I saw a lot of orders of protections and as a lawyer, I've handled my fair share of OP's so I knew what was in them," he said. "I went through some of them and one had a sealed envelope with instruction noting that it was confidential."

The next morning, Barberis said, he called Nelson to tell her about the situation. By then, he said Nelson had already been contacted by news reporters and was in the process of getting the documents properly disposed of.

He said the incident became the topic of conversation at the county board's judiciary committee meeting earlier this month, when some members expressed concerns of privacy.

Although many of the documents discovered in the recycling bin were public records that could have been viewed at the courthouse, Barberis said the courthouse is a secure environment since a member of the public seeking to view documents has to ask for them.

"A dumpster is not a secure environment," he said. "Anyone could have
gotten their hands on the documents."

Barberis said what bothered him the most was that "inside those documents was all of the information needed to open up a credit card."

Although Nelson made it clear that her office would move forward with a new recycling hauler, Barberis said he believes policies prohibiting personal information from being included in court documents and requiring documents to be shredded on site should be adopted in order to prevent breaches in confidentiality and privacy from occurring in the future.

Supreme Court rules

Nelson said the Supreme Court in January approved a new rule requiring the redaction of social security numbers from pleadings.

When her office receives pleadings that include social security numbers, Nelson said it notifies attorneys that they shouldn't put that personal information in pleadings and asks them to follow the procedures laid out in the new rule.

She said it happens about once a week, but expects it will slow down once attorneys catch up to the change.

But, the new rule only applies to newly-filed pleadings and as such, some of the old court documents circuit clerks get permission to throw away might include that information.

Nelson said her office has to wait until most of the cases in a given year are closed to seek the administrative office's permission to dispose of them. For instance, she said her office just sought a destructive order for cases from 2006.

With Madison County's heavy docket of asbestos cases, which typically linger in the court system for years, Nelson said it takes time for her office to dispose of old cases even though it has many of the documents imaged and scanned.

St. Clair County Circuit Clerk Kahala Dixon said like her peers in other counties, her office does not deviate from the administrative office's guidelines on record keeping.

"It's a process that's been followed forever," she said. "It's for everyone's protection, the protection of the office, citizens and the courts to make sure things are disposed of after a certain amount of time in a proper manner."

Dixon said the county handles the disposal of her office's records.

Space crunch and e-business

Dixon, Nelson and Seyller all said that they are running out of storage space for documents as they wait for the proper amount of time to pass to seek a destruction order from the AOIC.

"You just have to find more space," Dixon said. "It's a never-ending battle."

With documents in asbestos cases sometimes stretching six feet of storage space, Nelson said her office has "reached the last corner of the courthouse area" and keeps many old cases at the Wood River facility.

Seyller said as paper keeps coming in, boxes of documents pile up and sit in the aisles of her office. Kane County court documents, she said, are stored in her office and at the county's old courthouse.

All three agreed that some of the storage issues might be alleviated if the court would allow the electronic record to serve as the official record.

Doing so, however, wouldn't be as easy as a flip of the switch, Seyller said.

In order to get to that point, the Supreme Court would have to approve it and circuit clerk offices would have to make sure everyone they work with, including attorneys, arresting agencies and the public, would be able to access electronic records.

Nelson said switching to a statewide electronic filing and storage system could help alleviate concerns over human error and would be more efficient for circuit clerk offices.

For instance, Nelson said instead of having to get a document from an old case from the basement, she would be able retrieve it from her office's computer system.

Nelson said there is a lot of talk and expectation that the Supreme Court will soon issue a policy on e-business matters.

Joe Tybor, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, said the court created an e-business committee last summer in an effort to move e-filing from pilot projects to a standardized, statewide procedure.

Such a procedure, Tybor said, would include details on how to best protect legitimate privacy interests when it comes to document filing.

He said once the committee completes its work, its proposals will be forwarded to the court for consideration.

Seyller, who has worked on e-business issues as chairwoman of the Illinois Association of Circuit Clerk's e-business committee, said a statewide electronic policy is a large endeavor, but one that is needed to keep up with technology.

She said the Supreme Court will have to consider the available budgets and technology of county court systems in creating such a policy. She suggested that circuit clerks start working with their counties to get money lined up for technology upgrades.

"The devil is going to be in the details," Nelson said, "but I think having a policy in place could make things more efficient and benefit everyone involved in the court system."

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