Releasing Records

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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

After an agency makes a determination, it will release records responsive to a FOIA request that it does not assert fall within one of FOIA's Exemptions. When releasing records, an agency must generally segregate an exempt information from non-exempt information, and release the latter to the requester. Those records should, in most cases, be in the format specified by the requester.

Timing

FOIA requires that records be made "promptly available" after a determination has been made.[1]

The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has stated that "depending on the circumstances ['promptly available'] typically would mean within days or a few weeks of a 'determination,' not months or years."[2]

Duty to segregate and release non-exempt information

Under the federal FOIA, agencies cannot withhold non-exempt information found in a record merely because the record also contains exempt information. Agencies have a “duty to segregate” and provide releasable information. The FOIA requires that “[a]ny reasonably segregable portion of a record shall be provided to any person requesting such record after deletion of the portions which are exempt.”[3]

For example, in one case a requester sought letters sent from taxpayers to Congress about taxpayer related issues.[4] The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the IRS to disclose information that could reasonably be segregated from tax return information that should be withheld from release under a federal law.[5] The court found that the IRS should have redacted information that identified taxpayers — such as names and addresses — and released the non-identifiable information.[6]

The duty to segregate also ensures that agencies are not allowed to issue “sweeping, generalized claims of exemption for documents.”[7] Instead, agencies must describe which passages in a document have been withheld, and under which exemption.[8] In addition, where an agency claims that it is unable to segregate documents, the agency must “describe what proportion of the information in a [withheld] document is non-exempt and how that material is dispersed throughout the document.”[9]

If materials are described as exempt in very broad terms, portions of it are likely to be segregable.[10] The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has held that the use of the qualifying term “primarily” in describing what information was contained in a document an agency sought to withhold suggested that other portions of the withheld documents were likely to be releasable.[11]

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has also held that the redaction of non-responsive material within records that are otherwise responsive is improper.[12] "[O]nce an agency itself identifies a particular document or collection of material—such as a chain of emails—as a responsive 'record,' the only information the agency may redact from that record is that falling within one of the statutory exemptions."[13]

Inextricably intertwined information

Despite the general duty to release all non-exempt information, special situations exist where an agency is not required to segregate. For instance, an agency generally may withhold entire documents “if exempt and nonexempt information are ‘inextricably intertwined,’ such that the excision of exempt information would impose significant costs on the agency and produce an edited document with little informational value.”[14]

For example, in a case where requesters sought factual portions of reports submitted to OSHA that were used in deciding a lead safety standard, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that the factual information in a report was “inextricably intertwined” with the agency’s deliberative process.[15] The court held that “[d]isclosing factual segments from the . . . summaries would reveal the deliberative process of summarization itself by demonstrating which facts in the massive rule-making record were considered significant by the decisionmaker and those assisting her.”[16] As a result, the court ruled that the factual information had properly been withheld under Exemption 5.[17]

In another case, a law firm sought information about an amino acid collected under a federal surveillance program. The requester sought the computer software used to analyze the data.[18] The court held that this computer software, which was tailored to the specific data sets it was used to analyze, was “inextricably intertwined” with the deliberative process of agency scientists and properly withheld under Exemption 5.[19]

Where a small number of documents are concerned, it is possible than an agency can inappropriately raise the “inextricably intertwined” argument when providing redacted information will not impose significant costs. For instance, in a case where only 36 pages of responsive documents were withheld by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected the “inextricably intertwined” argument, because it found that in that situation, even “line-by-line analysis” did not appear unreasonable.[20]

Other limits on the duty to segregate

Additional exceptions to the duty to segregate exist. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has held that when an agency claims a document is non-disclosable under the attorney work product privilege, it is not required to segregate material within the document.[21] As you may have difficulty asserting that an agency has not met its duty to segregate where this privilege is invoked, you should instead argue that some or all of the documents simply do not meet requirements of that particular exemption.[22]

Another exception to the duty to segregate exists under Exemption 1 regarding records related to national security. Courts may accept that unclassified information can be withheld entirely if releasable information, when assembled with other sensitive records, would warrant classification.[23] The “compilation theory,” as it is known, essentially asks whether “information harmless in itself might be harmful when disclosed in context.”[24] It may be difficult for a requester to challenge an agency’s failure to segregate where this theory is invoked as courts routinely give great deference to an agency in FOIA national security situations.[25]

Marking of withheld portions of records

When making a release of records, FOIA requires that "The amount of information deleted, and the exemption under which the deletion is made, shall be indicated on the released portion of the record, unless including that indication would harm an interest protected by the exemption in this subsection under which the deletion is made."[26] Those deletions and exemptions "shall be indicated at the place in the record where such deletion is made" as long as it is "technically feasible".[27]

Non-responsiveness not a proper basis to withhold part of otherwise responsive record

The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has held that the redaction of non-responsive material within records that are otherwise responsive is improper.[28] "[O]nce an agency itself identifies a particular document or collection of material—such as a chain of emails—as a responsive 'record,' the only information the agency may redact from that record is that falling within one of the statutory exemptions."[29]

Format of Records

Within their request, requesters should specify their preferred format in which to receive the relevant record(s).

When responding to a request, the FOIA requires agencies to "provide the [requested] record in any form or format requested by the person if the record is readily reproducible by the agency in that form or format" and to also "make reasonable efforts to maintain its records in forms or formats that are reproducible" for such purposes.[30] So, agencies must not only honor a requester's choice of format among existing formats, but must also make reasonable efforts to disclose the record in a format not in existence at the the time of the request (for example, in an electronic format) if the record is "readily reproducible in that new format.[31]

If records are not readily reproducible by the agency in the format requested, courts have not required agencies to release the records in that format.[32]

Recent district court cases on releasing records

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


See also

https://www.justice.gov/oip/blog/foia-update-department-justice-report-electronic-record-foia-issues-part-ii

External links

https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/oip/legacy/2014/07/23/procedural-requirements.pdf

References

  1. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(C)(i)
  2. Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington v. Fed. Election Comm'n, 711 F.3d 180, 188 (D.C. Cir. 2013)
  3. 5 U.S.C. § 552 (b).
  4. Neufeld v. Internal Revenue Serv., 646 F.2d 661, 662-663 (D.C. Cir. 1981).
  5. Id. at 665-666.
  6. Id.
  7. Mead Data Cent., Inc., v. U.S. Dep’t of Air Force, 566 F.2d 242, 260 (D.C. Cir. 1977)
  8. Schiller v. NLRB, 964 F.2d 1205, 1209 (D.C. Cir. 1992), abrogated on other grounds by Milner v. Dep’t of Navy, 131 S.Ct. 1259 (2011).
  9. Mead Data Cent., Inc., 566 F.2d at 261.
  10. Krikorian v. Dep’t of State, 984 F.2d 461, 467 (D.C. Cir. 1993).
  11. Id.
  12. American Immigration Lawyers Association v. Executive Office for Immigration Review, 830 F.3d 667 (D.C. Cir. 2016), available at http://foiaproject.org/dc_view/?id=3004220-DC-15-5201-appeal-opinion
  13. American Immigration Lawyers Association v. Executive Office for Immigration Review, 830 F.3d at 678-79
  14. Neufeld, 646 F.2d at 666.
  15. Lead Indus. Ass’n, Inc., v. Occupational Safety & Health Admin., 610 F.2d 70, 83-5 (2d Cir. 1979).
  16. Id.
  17. Id.
  18. Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton v. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 844 F. Supp. 770, 774-775 (D.D.C. 1993).
  19. Id. at 782-83.
  20. Wightman, Jr. v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, 755 F.2d 979, 983 (D.C. Cir. 1985).
  21. Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Dep’t of Justice, 432 F.3d 366, 369-71 (D.C. Cir. 2005).
  22. See id. at 370.
  23. Am. Friends Serv. Comm. v. Dep’t of Def., 831 F.2d 441, 445 (3d Cir. 1987).
  24. Id.
  25. See Halperin v. Nat’l Sec. Council, 452 F. Supp. 47, 52 (D.D.C. 1978); Armstrong v. Exec. Office of the Pres., 97 F.3d 575, 580 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (explaining that deference to an agency affidavit on segregability is especially warranted in the national security context).
  26. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)
  27. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)
  28. American Immigration Lawyers Association v. Executive Office for Immigration Review, 830 F.3d 667 (D.C. Cir. 2016), available at http://foiaproject.org/dc_view/?id=3004220-DC-15-5201-appeal-opinion
  29. American Immigration Lawyers Association v. Executive Office for Immigration Review, 830 F.3d at 678-79
  30. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(B)
  31. Sample v. BOP, 466 F.3d 1086, 1087, 1089 (D.C. Cir. 2006); TPS, Inc. v. DOD, 330 F.3d 1191, 1195 (9th Cir. 2003)
  32. LaRoche v. SEC, 289 F. App'x 231, 231 (9th Cir. 2008); Jackson v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, No. 06-02157, 2008 WL 539925, at *4, (E.D. Cal. Feb. 25, 2008)