Jurisdiction and Venue

Provided by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is part of a series on Litigation


"Jurisdiction" refers to whether a court has the legal authority to hear a case, and "venue" refers to where a court case will be heard.


A federal court’s jurisdiction over a FOIA case is dependent upon a showing that an agency has

  1. “improperly”
  2. “withheld”
  3. “agency records.”[1]

“Judicial authority to devise remedies and enjoin agencies” under 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B) can only be invoked where all three prongs of this jurisdictional test are satisfied.[2]

A plaintiff who does not allege any improper withholding of agency records fails to state a claim over which a court has subject matter jurisdiction within the meaning of Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and his case will thus be dismissed.[3] Alternatively, his claim may dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[4]

"Improperly Withheld"

Whether an agency has "improperly" withheld records usually turns on whether one or more exemptions apply to the documents at issue.[5] The agency denying FOIA request bears burden of establishing that the requested information falls within an exemption and of remanding the case for consideration of the appropriate exemption(s).[6]

If the agency can establish that no responsive records exist,[7] or that the records have been destroyed, or transferred[8] then there is no "improper" withholding.

There is no improper withholding where an agency is prohibited from disclosing records by a preexisting court order.[9]

If an agency does not have possession or control of the requested record, courts have held that there was no improper withholding.[10] However, an agency's failure to consider those records that came into its possession or were created after receipt of a FOIA request, but prior to the start of the search for records, may be considered an improper withholding.[11]

In order for jurisdiction to exist, the agency must have improperly withheld agency records after the expiration of the statutory deadline for disclosure. If a requester files suit before the expiration of that deadline, the suit must be dismissed (even if the agency has still failed to respond to the request following the expiration of the deadline). This is because "the Court will only consider those facts and circumstances that existed at the time of the filing of the complaint, and not subsequent events."[12]

"Agency Records"

The FOIA provides jurisdiction over records held by federal agencies and does not extend to other entities or to individuals.[13]

Note that federal courts have been specifically excluded from the FOIA's definition of "agency." [14]


FOIA provides that venue is appropriate in three places:[15]

  1. the district court of the United States in the district in which the complainant resides, or has his principal place of business,
  2. a district court of the United States in which the agency records are situated, or
  3. in the District of Columbia

When a requester sues in a jurisdiction other than the District of Columbia, she must allege the nexus giving rise to proper venue in that other jurisdiction (i.e. must show that he resides in the jurisdiction, has her principle place of business there, or the agency records are located there).

Note that the District Court for the District of Columbia will be the sole appropriate forum when the requester resides and works outside the United States and the records requested are located in the District of Columbia. [16]

For FOIA venue purposes, aliens should be treated the same as U.S. citizens (i.e. a resident alien may bring a FOIA suit in the district where he resides, or in any of the other appropriate places).[17]

Forum Non Conveniens

This judicial doctrine gives a court the discretionary power to refuse to hear a case where it appears that there is a more appropriate forum within which the case can be heard.

In the FOIA context, forum non conveniens can permit the transfer of a FOIA case to a different judicial district even if the plaintiff's chosen venue is proper. Some examples of venue having been transferred are as follows:

  • Where the case could have been filed as a crossclaim in an existing lawsuit in another district[18]
  • Where the plaintiff's criminal case was pending in another district, and the FOIA request sought records from that proceeding [19]
  • Where there may be some nexus to the district originally selected, but there is nonetheless a more significant nexus to another district [20]

Note that a court may also decline to exercise jurisdiction when the requested records are the subject of pending FOIA litigation in another judicial district (i.e. when the doctrine of "federal comity" is in effect).[21] In this circumstance, the court will dismiss the case (i.e. rather than transferring venue).

Recent district court opinions on jurisdiction and venue

Recent district court cases regarding this topic from TRAC's FOIA Project. Visit their issue search page for more options.

See Also

External Links


  1. Kissinger, 445 U.S. at 150
  2. Id.
  3. Carroll v. SSA, No. 11-3005, 2012 WL 1454858, at *2 (D. Md. Apr. 24, 2012)
  4. Prado v. Ilchert, No. 95-1497, 1997 WL 383239, at *3 (N.D. Cal. June 10, 1997)
  5. DOJ v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 145 (1989)
  6. Abraham & Rose, P.L.C. v. United States, 138 F.2d 1075, 1078 (6th Cir. 1998)
  7. Perales v. DEA, 21 F. App'x 473, 474 (7th Cir. Oct. 17, 2001)
  8. Coal. on Political Assassinations v. DOD, 12 F. App'x 13, 14 (D.C. Cir. 2001)
  9. GTE Sylvania, Inc. v. Consumers Union, 445 U.S. 375, 387 (1980)
  10. DOJ v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 145 (1989)
  11. Pub. Citizen v. DOS, 276 F.3d 634, 643-44 (D.C. Cir. 2002)
  12. Judicial Watch, Inc. v. FBI, No. 01-1216, slip op. at 8 (D.D.C. July 26, 2002) (citing Judicial Watch, Inc. v. DOJ, No. 97-2089, slip op. at 11 (D.D.C. July 14, 1998) (citing, in turn, Newman-Green, Inc. v. Alfonzo-Larrain, 490 U.S. 826, 830 (1989)
  13. Drake v. Obama, 664 F.3d 774, 785 (9th Cir. 2011); Wright v. Curry, 122 F. App'x 724, 725 (5th Cir. 2004)
  14. United States v. Alcorn, 6 F. App'x 315, 316-17 (6th Cir. 2001)
  15. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).
  16. Akutowicz v. United States, 859 F.2d 1122, 1126 (2d Cir. 1988).
  17. Arevalo-Franco v. INS, 889 F.2d 589, 590-91 (5th Cir. 1989)
  18. Our Children's Earth Found. v. EPA, No. 08-01461, 2008 WL 3181583, at *7 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 4, 2008)
  19. Carpenter v. DOJ, No. 3:05-CV-172, 2005 WL 1290678, at *2 (D. Conn. Apr. 28, 2005)
  20. Ferri v. United States Dep't of Justice, 441 F. Supp. 404, 406-407 (M.D. Pa. 1977)
  21. McHale v. FBI, No. 99-1628, slip op. at 8-9 (D.D.C. Nov. 7, 2000); Hunsberger v. DOJ, No. 93-1945, slip op. at 1 (D.D.C. Mar. 16, 1994)