Immigration judges are career civil-service employees in the Department of Justice’s executive office. The judges preside over matters such as deportation, exclusion, removal and rescission proceedings for non-citizens charged with immigration law violations. The American Immigration Lawyers Association submitted a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for records about complaints filed against immigration judges. The Department of Justice disclosed thousands of pages of records, but redacted (1) information that disclosed the identity of individual judges, and (2) information that was determined to be non-responsive to the specific request regarding judicial conduct. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the Department of Justice erred with respect to both categories of redactions. American Immigration Lawyers Association v. Executive Office for Immigration Review, 830 F.3d 667 (D.C. Cir. 2016). The Court concluded that the government’s across-the-board approach to redacting immigration judges’ names was improper and remanded the case for rehearing with a more particularized inquiry into the propriety of redacting individual judge’s names. With respect to redactions based on non-responsiveness, the Court found no basis in FOIA for such redactions. The government was without authority to redact information within the records on the basis of non-responsiveness when no statutory exemption shielded the information from disclosure.
The nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court prompted document requests to the Department of Justice (DOJ). The D.C. District Court recently upheld a DOJ determination that records from the office of the Solicitor General were exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The records either were privileged or were not “agency records” subject to disclosure. Media Research Center v. U.S. Department of Justice and Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of Justice, 2011 WL 4852224 (Oct. 13, 2011).
In response to FOIA requests, DOJ began an electronic search of its files encompassing the dates of Justice Kagan’s tenure as Solicitor General. The search identified 1400 pages. After review, DOJ concluded that 86 pages were responsive to the requests under FOIA.
DOJ released 45 of the 86 pages, and withheld 41 pages under two theories: first, that they were not “agency records,” and second, that they fell under the “work product privilege” (exemption 5 to FOIA). DOJ released a log (often referred to as a “Vaughn Index”) providing its reasoning for every withheld or redacted document.
Plaintiffs challenged: 1) the adequacy of the initial search; 2) the determination that the 41 pages were not “agency records;” 3) the claim of attorney work product on six redacted documents; and 4) the claim concerning the deliberative process privilege.
- Adequacy of the Search. The Court concluded that DOJ’s search of its paper, electronic, and email files was adequate, and that plaintiffs’ conjecture that there should be additional records was insufficient to justify a different conclusion. See, Weisberg v. Department of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344 (D.C. Cir. 1983); Iturralde v. Comptroller of the Currency, 315 F.3d 311 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (agency’s search must be reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents, measured by the search methods and not by the results of the search).
- Agency records. In rejecting the Plaintiffs request for the Solicitor General’s correspondence about her nomination to the Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit Court found the correspondence “was not relied upon by the [Office of Solicitor General] in carrying out its business, but rather was used for a purely personal objective…the documents were personal, not attributable to the agency, and therefore were not “agency records.”
- Exemption 5 to FOIA, and the “Work Product Privilege.” Exemption 5 to FOIA allows an agency to withhold records that would be privileged from discovery during litigation. This exemption incorporates the work product doctrine and the deliberative process privilege. Department of the Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Association, 532 U.S. 1 (2001). Applying Exemption 5 and the attorney work product doctrine, the court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that a specific claim is necessary to invoke the doctrine. Instead, an objectively reasonable belief that litigation is a real possibility triggers the privilege. The Court did not reach the deliberative process question.
For reference to Washington’s PRA exemptions for attorney-client and other privileges that may give rise to exemptions from disclosure, see WA Court of Appeals Decision in Zink v. City of Mesa Has Many Public Records Act Lessons for Municipalities.
Customs' Notice of Seizure May be Redacted Under "Trade Secrets" Exemption to FOIA - But Not After Disclosure to Third Party
The federal Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) contains nine exemptions. Under the exemptions, the government can withhold information that might otherwise be available for disclosure. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1)-(9). FOIA “Exemption 4” applies to “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged and confidential.” In a recent decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals applied Exemption 4 to Notices of Seizure issued by the United States Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) to an importer of merchandise potentially infringing on a U.S. trademark.. CBP had heavily redacted the Notices of Seizure in responding to a FOIA request.
For application of Exemption 4, the 9th Circuit requires a government agency to demonstrate the information to be withheld is “(1) commercial and financial information, (2) obtained from a person or by the government, (3) that is privileged or confidential.” (Watkins v. U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, No. 09-35996, 5/6/11). The Court found that the Notices contained “plainly commercial information, which discloses intimate aspects of an importers business such as supply chains and fluctuations of demand for merchandise.”
But, under a separate statute, Notices must be disclosed to a trademark owner that may be aggrieved by the purported violation by the importer.
When disclosure is made to a trademark owner, the government imposes no restriction on the owner’s use of the information in the notice. He can freely disseminate the notices to his attorneys, business affiliates, trade organizations, the importer’s competitors, or the media in a way that would compromise the purportedly sensitive information about an offending importer’s trade operations. This no-strings-attached disclosure thus voids any claims to confidentiality and constitutes waiver of Exemption 4. FOIA accordingly creates an obligation for the government to disclose the requested documents.
In addition to other specific exemptions from disclosure, the Washington Public Records Act contains a similar provision that allows an agency to withhold “financial, commercial and proprietary information.” R.C.W. 42.56.270. That exemption from disclosure also includes:
proprietary data, trade secrets, or other information that relates to: (a) A vendor’s unique methods of conducting business; (b) data unique to the product or services of the vendor; or (c) determining prices or rates to be charged for services [for certain social and health services and health care activities].
The Uniform Trade Secrets Act, Ch. 19.108 RCW, also provides exemptions from disclosure under the Public Records Act through the “other statute” provisions of RCW 42.56.070(1) (formerly RCW 42.17.260(1)). Progressive Animal Welfare Soc’y v. University of Washington, 125 Wn.2d 242, 262, 884 P.2d 592 (1994).
In a decision issued on May 16, 2011, the United States Supreme Court examined the meaning of the term “report” under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). (Schindler Elevator Corp. v. United States ex rel. Kirk, No. 10-188, 2011).
The case arose when Daniel Kirk, a Vietnam veteran, sued his former employer, Schindler Elevator, under the federal False Claims Act. He asserted that Schindler, a government contractor, had submitted false claims by failing to file Vietnam Veterans Act reporting forms that were required under Schindler’s government contract. Kirk had confirmed the lack of Vietnam Veterans Act reporting through a FOIA request.
The False Claims Act, however, has a “public disclosure bar.” 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4)(A). That bar precludes a whistleblower suit based on information (including reports) obtained through a FOIA request. The Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and rejected an argument that the word “report” should receive a narrower meaning than simply “something that gives information.” The Supreme Court looked to the ordinary meaning of the word “report.” Citing dictionary definitions, the Supreme Court defined the term to include “something that gives information,” a “notification,” and “[a]n official or formal statement of facts or proceedings.” As a result, the disclosure of public records in response to a FOIA request constitutes a “report” and a False Claims Act case cannot be maintained based upon such a disclosure.
The March 30 edition of the New York Times reports that a research group in Michigan has made a public records request of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University for any e-mails involving the Wisconsin labor turmoil, including any e-mails with reference to Rachel Maddow – the MSNBC talk show host.
Greg Schulz, the director of academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors is quoted as asserting “We think this will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We’ve never seen FOIA requests used like this before.”
In the State of Washington, however, the issue of academic freedom v. freedom of information has long been decided in favor of the freedom of information. In 1994 the Washington Supreme Court held that documents regarding research proposals for primate experiments that didn’t fall within specific statutory exemptions were subject to disclosure under the State’s Public Records Act – despite the contention of the University of Washington that academic freedom protected those records from disclosure. Progressive Animal Rights Society (PAWS) v. University of Washington, 125 Wn.2d 243, 884 P.2d 592 (1994).
In PAWS, the Washington Supreme Court directly addressed the University’s argument that “the grant proposal should be exempt in its entirety because disclosure of a researcher’s preliminary ideas violates a putative constitutional privilege of academic freedom.” Rejecting that argument, the Court held that neither the popular initiative that first adopted Washington’s Public Record Act nor the legislature in later amendments had created an exemption from the Public Records Act for academics. Further the Court noted that, “Even assuming there were plausible grounds for doing so, it would be difficult to grant special First Amendment protection to public university employees while denying it to other state employees.”
On the other hand, both the trial court and the Supreme Court held that information in the proposal that would reveal research hypothesis, data, valuable formula and the like should be redacted from the documents as they are covered by exemptions to the Public Records Act. The Court also excluded the peer review “pink sheets” from disclosure, as they were documents reflecting a deliberative process for an unsuccessful proposal and thus exempt under the “deliberative process” exemption. But, the Court also noted “Once the proposal becomes funded, it clearly becomes ‘implemented’ for purposes of this exemption and the pink sheets thereby become disclosable.”
Has the Obama Administration effected real change in FOIA responsiveness? A recent Associated Press article, claims that the federal Freedom of Information Act is unwieldy and difficult, and that only the most patient and persistent requesters actually obtain the sought-for information. The article is critical of agencies’ efforts in implementing President Obama’s promise to make government more open and release more information rapidly.
During an event sponsored for Sunshine Week, March 13-19, reported in the AP article, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli is quoted as stating that more records are going out unredacted than ever before. “Where we once might have looked at a document, noticed a piece that could be released, and redacted the rest, we’re now more often determining that we can release the whole thing,” Perrelli is quoted as saying. However, a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas Fitton of Judicial Watch, stated that the conservative watchdog group has “filed 44 lawsuits to force the Obama administration to comply with the law.”
But perhaps there has been a change in how the Administration views the FOIA – now that it is on the inside. In a blog posted March 16 to celebrate Sunshine Week, Steve Croley, a Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy, points out that it is not in the public’s interests to release every document: “Our government also owes its citizens, among other things, protection of their personal privacy and business confidentiality, effective law enforcement, and a strong national defense.”
In Washington State on the other hand, the courts continue to liberally construe the state’s Public Records Act, and continue to extended its reach. See, for example, the expansive interpretation of the Public Records Act to include records contained on a city council member’s home computer discussed in our blog post of December 22, 2010, “City of Monroe, Washington Pays $157,394 to Settle Public Records Act Case.”
Western Washington Is On The Map: U.S. Supreme Court Orders Release of Indian Island Navy Ammunition Maps Under FOIA
The latest public records decision from the U.S. Supreme Court has put Western Washington on the map. The Court held 8-1 that Navy maps showing ammunition stockpiles at Indian Island (in Jefferson County, near Port Townsend) could not be withheld from disclosure under Exemption 2 of the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). Exemption 2 allows an entity to withhold records related to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.
In Milner v. Department of the Navy, the Navy argued that release of the maps would threaten public safety; the maps depict distances where damage could result from hypothetical explosions in buildings where weapons, ammunition and explosives are stored. But as reported by the Kitsap Sun, public safety is the very reason the maps were requested by local activist Glen Milner, who wanted information about whether his community might be endangered by the ammunition supply.
The crux of the case was whether Exemption 2 can be used to block the release of the type of documents in question. According to some of the amici curiae briefs before the Court (primarily news organizations and the ACLU), Exemption 2 had, over the years, become a catchall exemption for the government. “High 2” (as the exemption had become known) had expanded beyond its plain language through administrative interpretations and lower court rulings, allowing the government to withhold documents that were not clearly connected to an agency’s personnel rules or internal practices. Instead, based on a 1981 D.C. Circuit Court opinion, the “High 2” exemption had come to shield any internal documents whose release might risk circumvention of agency functions.
The Supreme Court held in favor of disclosure, finding that the maps were not “personnel rules or practices” under the plain language of Exemption 2, thus rejecting the 30-year old D.C. Circuit interpretation. Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan stated that the past tolerance of the expansive “High 2” reading of the statute “pos[ed] the risk that FOIA would become less a disclosure than a ‘withholding statute’”. In a lone dissent, Justice Breyer stated that he would “let sleeping dogs lie”, noting that the courts have supported the broad use of Exemption 2 for the past 30 years.
The Court also noted that the Navy could rely on other FOIA exemptions to limit disclosure of the maps, such as the national security exemption (Exemption 1) or the law enforcement exemption (Exemption 7(f)) which allows an agency to withhold records that "could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual." But these issues were not decided by the District Court.
This case is likely to have a substantial impact on disclosure requests by prohibiting all agencies’ continued use of the “High 2” exemption to support expansive refusals to disclose records. The Supreme Court has reminded us that exemptions to FOIA are narrowly construed, and all government agencies should think carefully about the narrow applicability of exemptions when asked for public records.
The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 551-559, protects a corporation’s interest in “personal privacy.” In September of 2009, the Third Circuit ruled in favor of AT&T and against the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) in finding that FOIA’s law enforcement exemption protects a corporation’s interest in “personal privacy.” AT&T Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission, 582 F.3d 490 (2009). The FCC has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case on January 19, 2011. See Court Weighs Whether Corporations Have Personal Privacy Rights, New York Times, January 19, 2011.
FOIA exempts from mandatory disclosure records collected for law enforcement purposes to the extent disclosure “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(C). FOIA does not define personal, but does define person as “an individual, partnership, corporation, association, or public or private organization other than an agency.” 5 U.S.C. § 551(2).
This case arose from a FCC investigation into whether AT&T overcharged the U.S. government for an AT&T program. Under the program, AT&T provided equipment and services to elementary and secondary schools and then billed the U.S. government for program costs. In 2004, AT&T discovered that that it may have overcharged the U.S. government for some services, and voluntarily reported the issue to the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. The FCC investigated the matter and the issue was ultimately settled.
Following the investigation, CompTel, a trade association representing AT&T competitors, submitted a FOIA request to the FCC seeking records relating to the AT&T investigation. AT&T opposed the disclosure, arguing that the records were collected as part of a law enforcement investigation and the disclosure of the records would constitute an unwarranted invasion of AT&T’s privacy. The FCC rejected AT&T’s argument stating “personal privacy” does not apply to corporations.
AT&T ultimately appealed the decision to the Third Circuit, which ruled in favor of AT&T. The Third Circuit held that “FOIA’s text unambiguously indicates that a corporation may have a ‘personal privacy’ interest within the meaning of the [law enforcement exemption].” 582 F.3d at 498. The Third Circuit remanded to determine whether the disclosure of these particular documents would constitute an unwarranted invasion of AT&T’s personal privacy.
The Third Circuit’s opinion noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has never squarely rejected a corporation’s ability to claim a personal privacy interest. The Supreme Court’s decision in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T Inc. will test this precedent.
The FCC released the National Broadband Plan today, setting out ambitious goals for how the federal government conducts business in cyberspace. The Plan targets several concrete goals, including
- 100 million homes with affordable access to 100 megabit per second internet access.
- At least one institutional (e.g., hospital or university) connection at one gigabit per second in every community.
Closer to open local government’s home, the Plan’s “Civic Engagement” chapter may raise the bar for municipalities in providing access to records and officials. Although the Plan is directed to the federal government, citizens are likely to expect the same level of service from all government agencies, including their local city hall.
Some Plan recommendations that could make their way to local government requirements in the next few years include:
- All responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests should be made available online (rather than delivered only to the requester), in part to cut down on time and money spent processing multiple similar requests.
- All government meetings, hearings, and town halls, should be broadcast online.
- Government should accelerate the adoption of social media technologies given the success stories to date, e.g. 37 million views of H1N1 flu-related media feeds.
Given the potential impacts of the Plan (and technological innovation generally) local government stakeholders would be well-advised to educate themselves about broadband technology and its impact on citizen interaction with their government leaders.
In a recent unpublished decision, a Washington State Court of Appeals addressed a Public Records Act request from the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County for records of the County’s Building and Planning Department. Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County v. County of Spokane, No. 27184-6 (C.A. Wa., Div. III, August 11, 2009).
While an unpublished decision, the Court’s analysis does provide some guidance for a government’s review of electronic records in response to a public record request. First, the Court looked to federal court decisions under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to guide the the standard for judicial review of the government agency’s response to a request.
“The adequacy of the agency’s search is judged by a standard of reasonableness, construing the facts in the light most favorable to the requestor.”
“the agency must show that it ‘made a good faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records, using methods which can be reasonably expected to produce the information requested.’”
Applying that standard to Spokane County’s efforts, the Court found that the County had examined one computer, but had not examined an older hard drive used by the author of the subject document. “The County failed to conduct an adequate search for the complete electronic information log showing the date the” record was created.
Also of interest is the Court’s determination that under the Public Records Act, similar to FOIA, the scope of discovery in records litigation is limited to whether a complete disclosure has been made by the agency in response to a request for information. The Court rejected the broad discovery requests for other documents and information to the County that “went far beyond the issue of whether a reasonably adequate search for documents had taken place.”
Here is an interesting editorial in the Wall Street Journal: "Why Palin Quit Death by a Thousand FOIAs" The editorial highlights that public records laws can be abused to paralyze a government agency or a public office holder:
This situation developed because Alaska's transparency laws allow anyone to file Freedom of Information Act requests. While normally useful, in the hands of political opponents FOIA requests can become a means to bog down a target in a bureaucratic quagmire, thanks to the need to comb through records and respond by a strict timetable. ... Since Ms. Palin returned to Alaska after the 2008 campaign, some 150 FOIA requests have been filed and her office has been targeted for investigation by everyone from the FBI to the Alaska legislature.”
As bad as this may sound, at least Alaska law -- like the law in most states -- allows the state to charge for search time after giving each requester a taxpayer-subsidized five hours a month for free, which serves as a disincentive to anyone seeking to abuse the law by making large requests. Agencies in Washington, however, cannot charge for search time, which makes the Public Records Act an even more powerful weapon in this state for persons who may want to target an agency or official. And while the vast majority of requesters act in good faith, even one person can paralyze a city or other agency.
(Note, the editorial also highlights the numerous ethics complaints that have led to a half-million dollar attorney-fee bill, which also played a big factor in Palin’s decision to resign.)
When the U.S. Forest Service was considering whether to fire whistle-blower Glen Ith back in 2007, its ethics chief was keenly aware that his emails on the topic were public records, subject to discover. His solution? Instruct all recipients to destroy the emails:
This information is for your eyes only. Please destroy after reading. It's not protected by privilege and is subject to discovery.
Melvin Y. Shibuya
Chief, Labor/Employee Relations Branch
He repeated similar warnings in subsequent emails.
Here is a link to an article that includes these excerpts from those emails.
Justice has prevailed, at least sort of. Mr. Ith died of a heart attack while on administrative leave, after his job was "downsized" but his widow was recently awarded all of her litigation cost.
As reported by the Huffington Post, President Obama has now included a provision in a war-funding bill that would protect the detainee abuse photos from disclosure.
McLatchy Reports: "Why'd Obama switch on detainee photos? Maliki went ballistic." While fear of foreign uprisings may not be an exemption under FOIA, maybe it should be.
A federal appeals court has now affirmed the position of President Obama that White House Office of Administration is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, reasoning that the entity only implements administrative decisions and does not form policy.
Here is some more food for thought on the President's reasons for not releasing the photos.
As noted in this article, "Like Bush, Obama White House Chooses Secrecy for Key Office," President Obama is continuing the Bush-era policy of exempting the White House Office of Administration from the Freedom of Information Act. The article ends by reminding reader's of one of the President's campaign promises on openness:
"More and more, the real business of our democracy isn't done in town halls or public meetings or even in the open halls of Congress," he told an Iowa audience in 2007. "Decisions are made in closed-door meetings, or with the silent stroke of the President's pen, or because some lobbyist got some Congressman to slip his pet project into a bill during the dead of night. We have to take the blinders off the White House."
President Obama has now reversed his position on the release of the additional photographs showing the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. When the first batch of photos were released in 2004, it caused world-wide outrage. This article analyzes and deconstructs the six reasons President Obama seems to be relying on for this change.
Update May 31, 2009
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s Memorandum For Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies provides a nice summary of what the presumption of openness means. The Attorney General identifies three ingredients:
1. Only assert an exemption if nondisclosure serves the exemption’s public purpose.
2. When possible, redact exempt information rather than withhold an entire document.
3. Never assert an exemption merely to hide mistakes or because of abstract concerns.
Here is what the memo actual states:
First, an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally. I strongly encourage agencies to make discretionary disclosures of information. An agency should not withhold records merely because it can demonstrate, as a technical matter, that the records fall within the scope of a FOIA exemption.
Second, whenever an agency determines that it cannot make full disclosure of a requested record, it must consider whether it can make partial disclosure. Agencies should always be mindful that the FOIA requires them to take reasonable steps to segregate and release nonexempt information. Even if some parts of a record must be withheld, other parts either may not be covered by a statutory exemption, or may be covered only in a technical sense unrelated to the actual impact of disclosure.
At the same time, the disclosure obligation under the FOIA is not absolute. The Act provides exemptions to protect, for example, national security, personal privacy, privileged records, and law enforcement interests. But as the President stated in his memorandum, "The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."
One way to tell a good public records law from a bad law is that a good law starts with a presumption that all records are open and then defines exceptions. A bad law will presume the opposite and instead define what records have to be disclosed.
Washington law has always included the presumption of disclosure. Here is a story about South Dakota, which just amended its public records law to include the presumption of disclosure.
Washington law codifies this presumption in two provisions of the Public Records Act:
RCW 42.56.550(1) provides "The burden of proof shall be on the agency to establish that refusal to permit public inspection and copying is in accordance with a statute that exempts or prohibits disclosure in whole or in part of specific information or records."
RCW 42.56.030 then heightens the burden an agency will have to meet before it can withhold a record by providing that the Act "shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed" to promote the Act's stated purpose of allowing the public to stay informed about government.
The result of these two provisions is that an agency must disclose any public record, unless it can prove that under a narrow interpretation of a statutory exemption, the record is exempt from disclosure.
Here is an editorial on the "torture memos" from the Olympian written by the editor of this blog, Ramsey Ramerman. It was inspired by George Will's recent statement on ABC's This Week: "The problem with transparency is that it’s transparent for the terrorists as well.”
Update 5/13: Here's the Og-Blog's take on the editorial. As it correctly notes, President Obama's administration has not been as transparent as many had hoped, particularly with regards to the Federal Reserve and the AIG bailout.