Making a FOIA Request

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The FOIA Process

Making a FOIA Request

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Pre-determination communications

Pre-determination agency actions

Determinations

Releasing Records

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Administrative Appeals and/or OGIS

Litigation

Introduction

Submitting a request is the first step in gaining access to agency records under FOIA.

There are several issues to consider when making a FOIA request, including procedural requirements set out by the statute and the agency, and the specificity of the request.

Identity of the Requester

A FOIA request may be made by “any person.”[1] This means that all U.S. citizens, as well as foreign nationals, can use the Act to request information from government agencies. A request can also be made in the name of a corporation, partnership or other entity, such as a public interest group or news organization.

However, agencies that are part of the Intelligence Community are prohibited from providing records to: "(i) any government entity, other than a State, territory, commonwealth, or district of the United States, or any subdivision thereof; or (ii) a representative of a government entity described in clause (i)."[2]

Procedural requirements

FOIA states that "each agency, upon any request for records which (i) reasonably describes such records and (ii) is made in accordance with published rules stating the time, place, fees (if any), and procedures to be followed, shall make the records promptly available to any person."[3]

Contents of a request

Specifying the records

FOIA requires that requested records be “reasonably describe[d].”[4] As one court has said, a request meets this requirement if “the agency is able to determine precisely what records are being requested.”[5] As another put it, the standard is met when it allows “a professional employee of the agency who [is] familiar with the subject area of the request to locate the record with a reasonable amount of effort.”[6]

“Broad, sweeping requests lacking specificity”[7] should also be avoided, because agencies are not required to fulfill them when they are not “able to determine precisely what records are being requested.”[8] For example, in a case where a requester sought “any and all documents, including but not limited to files, that refer or relate in any way to [the requester],” the court found the request to be too broad because the agency could not locate with reasonable effort the specific documents requested.[9] In another case, a “blanket request for all unpublished manuscript decisions” of the patent office was considered “sweeping and indiscriminate” where more than a million documents might have been responsive records.[10] A request for all documents about an individual requester is often considered too broad.[11]

A request must be written so that employees of the agency will be able to identify responsive records, not “questions disguised as a FOIA request”[12] or requests that appear to be “a general fishing expedition for answers to questions.”[13]

Requests for Fees and Fee Waivers

For more information, see Fee Categories and Fee Waivers

A requester may wish to include information identifying what fee category they fit into, and/or a request for a waiver of fees.

Expedited Processing

For more information, see Expedited Processing

A requester may wish to ask for expedited processing of their FOIA request.

Sample requests and suggested language

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Submitting the request

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Recent district court cases on making FOIA requests

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

See Also

External Links

References

  1. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A)
  2. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(E)
  3. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A)
  4. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A).
  5. Kowalczyk v. Dep’t. of Justice, 73 F.3d 386, 388 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (quoting Yeager v. Drug Enforcement Admin., 678 F.2d 315, 326 (D.C. Cir. 1982)).
  6. Truitt v. Dep’t of State, 897 F.2d 540, 545 n. 36 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (quoting H.R. Rep. No. 93-876, 93d Cong., 2d Sess. at 6 (1974), reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. 6267, 6271)).
  7. Dale v. Internal Revenue Serv., 238 F. Supp.2d 99, 104 (D.D.C. 2002).
  8. Id. (quoting Tax Analysts v. IRS, 117 F.3d 607, 610 (D.C. Cir. 1997)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
  9. Dale, 238 F.Supp.2d at 104
  10. Irons v. Schuyler, 465 F.2d 608, 609-12 (D.C. Cir. 1972).
  11. Dale, 238 F.Supp. 2d at 104.
  12. Hudgins v. Internal Revenue Serv., 620 F. Supp. 19, 21 (D.D.C. 1985).
  13. Id. at 22.