Foreseeable Harm Standard

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Introduction

The 2016 amendments to FOIA[1] codified the foreseeable harm standard that was set out in Attorney General Eric Holder's 2009 memorandum.[2]

Text of the Foreseeable Harm Standard

See also Text of the FOIA

5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(8)

(A) An agency shall—
(i) withhold information under this section only if—
(I) the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption described in subsection (b); or
(II) disclosure is prohibited by law; and
(ii)
(I) consider whether partial disclosure of information is possible whenever the agency determines that a full disclosure of a requested record is not possible; and
(II) take reasonable steps necessary to segregate and release nonexempt information; and
(B) Nothing in this paragraph requires disclosure of information that is otherwise prohibited from disclosure by law, or otherwise exempted from disclosure under subsection (b)(3).”

Scope and application of the foreseeable harm standard

The legislative history of the 2016 amendments makes clear that agencies must determine whether the release of “particular documents” will cause foreseeable harm, not simply generic categories of records.[3].

The first case to address the foreseeable harm standard is Ecological Rights Foundation v. FEMA, from the Northern District of California.[4] The plaintiff in that case submitted FOIA requests to FEMA seeking "information regarding FEMA's compliance with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) during the course of FEMA's implementation of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in California."[5] The agency produced some records and withheld others in part and in full under Exemption 6 and Exemption 5.[6] Ruling on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the court held that FEMA had not adequately justified its use of the deliberative process privilege for several reasons, including a failure to satisfy the foreseeable harm standard.[7] Specifically, the Court stated:

Lastly, FEMA fails to explain how disclosure would expose FEMA's decision-making process so as to discourage candid discussion. FEMA also does not provide any justification for how the agency would be harmed by disclosure as required by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(8)(A)(i). Absent a showing of foreseeable harm to an interest protected by the deliberative process exemption, the documents must be disclosed. In failing to provide basic information about the deliberative process at issue and the role played by each specific document, FEMA does not meet its burden of supporting its withholdings with detailed information pursuant to the deliberative process privilege.[8]

See Also

External Links

References

  1. Public Law No: 114-185, https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/337/text
  2. Memorandum for Heads of Executive Deparments and Agencies (Mar. 29, 2009), https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/ag/legacy/2009/06/24/foia-memo-march2009.pdf
  3. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/2016/03/15/senate-section/article/S1494-1 legislative history
  4. Ecological Rights Foundation v. FEMA, No. 16-cv-05254-MEJ, 2017 WL 5972702 (N.D. Cal., Nov. 30, 2017), https://apps.fastcase.com/Research/Public/ExViewer.aspx?LTID=/MIjiu89cGe2yTfRyR4brkhLduWtRyOtTzO1LO1Ep0z5R+Veol05SNRnM1sBG653KEiFZJa2ptE6orwVCUKHphthmTd99Ycoz58IF6hfJv6DfDbgop8pjhXMArFCcAWi7lnAXLkvK0hS6HxJedTggI+9l0uSp+LD/w2VXc9nRJg=
  5. Ecological Rights Foundation v. FEMA, No. 16-cv-05254-MEJ, 2017 WL 5972702 (N.D. Cal., Nov. 30, 2017)
  6. Ecological Rights Foundation v. FEMA, No. 16-cv-05254-MEJ, 2017 WL 5972702 (N.D. Cal., Nov. 30, 2017)
  7. Ecological Rights Foundation v. FEMA, No. 16-cv-05254-MEJ, 2017 WL 5972702 (N.D. Cal., Nov. 30, 2017)
  8. Ecological Rights Foundation v. FEMA, No. 16-cv-05254-MEJ, 2017 WL 5972702 (N.D. Cal., Nov. 30, 2017)