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.