Federal Freedom of Information Act

The Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted to open the administrative process to the scrutiny of the press and the general public[i].  FOIA was broadly conceived with the purpose of  permiting access to official information long shielded unnecessarily from public view and attempting to create a judicially enforceable public right to secure such information from official hands.

FOIA reflects “a general philosophy of full agency disclosure unless information is exempted under clearly delineated statutory language”[ii].  Thus, while “disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of FOIA.”  There are a number of exemptions from the statute’s broad reach[iii].

The only relevant “public interest in disclosure” to be weighed in this balance is the extent to which disclosure would serve the “core purpose of the FOIA,” which is “contributing significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government[iv].”

FOIA’s basic policy of ‘full agency disclosure unless information is exempted under clearly delineated statutory language indeed focuses on the citizens’ right to be informed about what their government is up to.  Official information that sheds light on a performance of its statutory duties falls squarely within that statutory purpose.  That purpose, however, is not fostered by disclosure of information about private citizens that is accumulated in various governmental files but that reveals little or nothing about an agency’s own conduct[v].  One such exemption that is Exemption 6 wiht protects employee addresses.  It provides that FOIA’s disclosure requirements do not apply to “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy[vi].  Exemption 6 cases require a balancing of the individual’s right of privacy against the preservation of the basic purpose of FOIA to open agency action to public scrutiny.

While claims of exemption from disclosure must be consistent with clearly delineated statutory language, the court also looks to the reasons for exemption from the disclosure requirements in determining whether the Government has properly invoked a particular exemption and examine the effect that disclosure would have on the interest the exemption seeks to protect.  Furthermore, while recognizing that these statutory exemptions are intended for meaningful reach and application, the court was careful to observe that these limited exemptions do not obscure the basic policy that disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of FOIA and that accordingly, these exemptions must be narrowly construed[vii]. Furthermore, “the burden is on the agency to sustain its action[viii].

Finally, the government bears the burden of demonstrating the applicability of a claimed exemption[ix].  Under FOIA, “federal jurisdiction is dependent on a showing that an agency has (1) ‘improperly’; (2) ‘withheld’; (3) ‘agency records[x].’  To establish jurisdiction in a case alleging violation of FOIA, the plaintiff bears the initial burden of alleging “improper withholding of agency records” by a federal agency[xi].  However, once alleged, the burden is on the agency to demonstrate, not the requester to disprove, that the materials sought are not ‘agency records’ or have not been ‘improperly’ ‘withheld[xii].  When, a plaintiff challenges the adequacy of an agency’s search, the agency can meet its burden by submitting affidavits or other evidence showing that it conducted a thorough search and determined no records responsive to the request exist[xiii].

Two requirements must be satisfied for requested materials to qualify as “agency records.” First, an agency must either create or obtain the requested materials as a prerequisite to its becoming an agency record within the meaning of the FOIA.  Second, the agency must be in control of the requested materials at the time the FOIA request is made.  By control the Court means that the materials have come into the agency’s possession in the legitimate conduct of its official duties.  However, the term “agency records” is not so broad as to include personal materials in an employee’s possession, even though the materials may be physically located at the agency[xiv].

Another purpose of the FOIA is to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny, by requiring agencies to adhere to a philosophy of full disclosure, under a belief that such a philosophy, when put into practice, will help to insure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society.  The FOIA seeks to provide a workable and balanced formula which makes available information that ought to be public and, at the same time, protects certain information which must remain confidential in order to protect legitimate governmental functions.  The emphasis of the FOIA is nonetheless on disclosure, since the Act clearly states that nothing therein authorizes the withholding of information or limits the availability of records to the public, except as specifically stated therein.

Virtually every document generated by an agency is available to the public in one form or another under the FOIA, unless it falls within one of the Act’s nine exemptions.  Accordingly, the policy of the FOIA requires that its disclosure provisions be construed broadly, and its exemptions are given a narrow compass.  However, nothing within the Act is authority for the withholding of information from Congress.

[i]Pa. Dep’t of Pub.Welfare v. United States, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3492 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 7, 2001).

[ii] Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 360-361, 48 L. Ed. 2d 11, 96 S. Ct. 1592 (1976).

[iii] Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 360-361, 48 L. Ed. 2d 11, 96 S. Ct. 1592 (1976).

[iv] United States Dep’t of Defense v. Federal Labor Relations Auth., 510 U.S. 487, 495-496 (U.S. 1994).

[v] United States Dep’t of Defense v. Federal Labor Relations Auth., 510 U.S. 487, 495-496 (U.S. 1994).

[vi] United States Dep’t of Defense v. Federal Labor Relations Auth., 510 U.S. 487, 494-495 (U.S. 1994).

[vii] Reilly v. United States EPA, 429 F. Supp. 2d 335, 341 (D. Mass. 2006).

[viii] John Doe Agency v. John Doe Corp., 493 U.S. 146, 152 (U.S. 1989).

[ix] Church of Scientology International v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 30 F.3d 224, 228 (1 Cir., 1994).

[x] Kissinger v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 445 U.S. 136, 150, 100 S.Ct. 960, 968, 63 L. Ed. 2d 267 (1980).

[xi] Goldgar v. Office of Admin., Executive Office of the President, 26 F.3d 32, 34 (5th Cir. 1994).

[xii] U.S. Dep’t of Justice v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 142 n. 3, 109 S. Ct. 2841, 2847 n. 3, 106 L. Ed. 2d 112 (1989).

[xiii] Rodriguez v. Providence Police Dep’t, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64439, 4-5 (D.R.I. June 23, 2009).

[xiv] United States DOJ v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136 (U.S. 1989).

Inside Federal Freedom of Information Act