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5 U.S.C. §552(b). This section does not apply to matters that are. . .(see below for a discussion of the nine
categories of information that are exempt from disclosure). Any reasonably segregable portion of a record
shall be provided to any person requesting such record after deletion of the portions which are exempt under
this subsection. The amount of information deleted 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. If technically feasible, the amount of information
deleted shall be indicated at the place in the record where such deletion is made.
This section sets forth nine categories of records which are exempt from the FOIA's three disclosure mandates; i.e., 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(1), (a)(2), and (a)(3). Despite the use of the introductory words "this section," Section (b) does not exempt records from the FOIA's other provisions. Linsteadt v. IRS, 729 F.2d 988, 1000 n.3 (5th Cir. 1984). For example, it would make no sense to argue that the requirement in Section (a)(6) to inform a requester of the reasons for a denial does not apply to exempt records, because only exempt records can be withheld.
These exemptions are permissive rather than mandatory, i.e., they do not require the withholding of any records. If there were any remaining doubts on this question, they were settled by the Supreme Court in Chrysler Corp. v. Brown, 441 U.S. 281 (1979). Even courts sometimes misstate the issue, however. E.g., "[t]his appeal presents a single issue, whether Exemption 6. . .of the [FOIA] prohibits the release of [the records at issue]." (emphasis added). Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 9 v. U.S. Air Force, 63 F.3d 994, 995 (10th Cir. 1995).
Because the exemptions are permissive, agencies can waive them unless there is some other statute which requires withholding. The question sometimes arises, however, whether an agency has unintentionally waived an exemption. For example, in Mobil Oil Corp. v. EPA, 879 F.2d 698 (9th Cir. 1989), the question was whether EPA had waived valid Exemption 5 and 7 claims by releasing related documents to a third party. Both parties agreed that EPA had not released the actual documents at issue. The court held that EPA had not waived the exemptions. "Implying waiver of these exemptions based on the release of related documents to Mobil or to third parties would be contrary both to the case law on waiver and to the policies underlying FOIA and its exemptions." 879 F.2d at 700. In dicta the court summarized what remains the current rule that release of a document does constitute a waiver of any exemptions applicable to that document, but not to related records unless they are identical in substance.
Davis v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 968 F.2d 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1992), presented an interesting variation of the waiver issue. A researcher sought copies of tape recordings made during a criminal investigation, portions of which were played in open court during the resulting prosecution. The parties agreed that the Government had waived any FOIA exemptions by playing the tapes in court, but neither the researcher nor the Government could identify those portions with certainty. The district could held that the burden for identifying those portions was on the Government, and that if it could not meet this burden, it would have to release all the tapes. The appellate court reversed, holding that to "obtain portions of the tapes alleged to be in the public domain, [Plaintiff] has the burden of showing that there is a permanent public record of the exact portions he wishes. It does not suffice to show -- as he has done -- that some of the tapes were played to shift the burden to the government." 968 F.2d at 1280. The court did not explain why a plaintiff would even be making the request if he could meet this burden.
In October 1993, the President and the Attorney General directed agencies to consider waiving FOIA exemptions in all cases unless there is a "reasonable probability that disclosure would be harmful to an interest protected by [the exemptions being claimed]." See FOIA Update, Summer/Fall 1993.
Congress added the provision concerning reasonably segregable portions in the 1974 Amendments to make it clear that the fact that a record contained some exempt portions was not automatically grounds for withholding the entire record (even when dealing with national security matters under Exemption 1). For an excellent discussion of this issue see Morton-Norwich Products, Inc. v. Mathews, 415 F.Supp. 78 (D.D.C. 1976). It is possible, however, for an agency to argue successfully "that the editing required for partial disclosure. . .is so extensive that the remaining information is not reasonably segregable. . ." Long v. IRS, 825 F.2d 225, 230 (9th Cir. 1987). Courts of appeal will remand a case if the district court fails to make express findings as to whether or not withheld records contain any reasonably segregable portions. Schiller v. NLRB, 964 F.2d 1205 (D.C. Cir. 1992); PHE, Inc. v. Dept. of Justice, 983 F.2d 248 (D.C. Cir. 1993).
Laborers' Int. Union of North America v. Dept. of Justice, 772 F.2d 919 (D.C. Cir. 1985), presents an interesting aspect of this requirement. The case involved a Criminal Division report entitled "Organized Crime and the Labor Unions." The plaintiff had what it claimed was a leaked copy. Under these circumstances, the agency successfully contended that there were no "reasonably segregable" portions since to release any part of the report would confirm whether or not plaintiff's copy was an accurate one.
The 1996 Amendments added the requirement to indicate the location and extent of reasonably segregable material redacted, which is discussed above. They did not, however, change the language of any of the nine exemptions.
In Trans-Pacific Policing Agreement v. U.S. Customs, 177 F.3d 1022 (D.C. Cir. 1999), the court considered a situation in which the requester raised the argument for the first time on appeal that it was willing to concede that the records at issue (i.e., 10-digit shipping code numbers) were exempt in part, but that a redacted (i.e., 4-digit) version was not. Customs countered by arguing that the requester had waived this argument, holding that district court have "an affirmative duty to consider the segregability argument sua sponte." 177 F.3d at 1028.
Each of the nine exemptions is discussed separately below. A discussion of "Reverse FOIA Cases"
follows that of Exemption 4, for this is the exemption that has been involved in an overwhelming majority
of those cases.
Exemption 1. . . .(A) specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive order to be kept secret
in the interest of national defense or foreign policy and (B) are in fact properly classified pursuant to such
Congress amended this exemption in the 1974 Amendments to reverse the Supreme Court's decision in EPA v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73 (1973), in which the Court held that a showing of the fact of a record's classification under the applicable executive order justified withholding in such a way as to preclude any further judicial inquiry into the matter.
Before proceeding further, however, it is necessary to understand exactly what is meant by the national security classification system. It is a system prescribed by executive order to insure the safeguarding of records and other materials whose improper release would adversely affect the national security (a term which includes the national defense and foreign relations). The current executive order is E.O. 12968, which replaced E.O. 12356 on October 14, 1995. It prescribes three classifications -- Confidential, Secret and Top Secret. Any other term is not a national security classification and cannot be used to justify withholding under Exemption 1.
It is vitally important for anyone engaged in an Exemption 1 FOIA analysis to work with the Executive Order that was in effect at the time of the classification decision rather than that of the analysis, for it is the former which controls in any subsequent litigation. Halpern v. FBI, 181 F.3d 279 (2d Cir. 1999). Earlier, another court of appeals ruled that while a district court may permit an agency to rely on a superseding Executive Order in FOIA litigation, it may not require the agency to do so. Campbell v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 164 F.3d 20 (D.C. Cir. 1998).
Congress described two main purposes for the 1974 amendment. The first was to make it clear that the FOIA empowered courts to make de novo determinations on both the procedural and substantive correctness of an agency's classification decision, and to conduct an in camera inspection, in their discretion, where necessary to make that de novo determination. The second, corollary purpose, was to authorize courts to order the release of records which they found were improperly classified. For a further discussion of this amendment see 1974 Bluebook at 1-4.
This amendment was cited by President Ford as one of his main reasons for vetoing the 1974 Amendments. Source Book II at 484. In the conference report, however, the conferees had indicated that they expected "that Federal Courts, in making de novo determinations in Section 552(b)(1) cases. . .will accord substantial weight to an agency's affidavit concerning the details of the classified status of the disputed records." Source Book II, at 226.
They also expressed the view that "before a court orders in camera inspection, the Government should be given the opportunity to establish by means of testimony or detailed affidavits that the documents are clearly exempt from disclosure." Source Book II at 226.
As a result of this legislative history, most Exemption 1 cases have involved plaintiffs attacking the adequacy of the agency's affidavit and urging the court to examine the records in camera. Initially it seemed that the courts were going to accept an agency's affidavit as a matter of course unless there was evidence of bad faith on its part. E.g., Weissman v. CIA, 565 F.2d 692 (D.C. Cir. 1977). In 1978, however, the D.C. Circuit expressed a different view, rejecting the theory that the agency's classification decision should be upheld so long as it could establish a "reasonable basis" for the decision, and that the courts' authority to conduct in camera inspections was limited to cases where there was evidence of bad faith on the part of the agency. Ray v. Turner, 587 F.2d 1187 (D.C. Cir. 1978).
This decision produced great uncertainty as to exactly what was required for the Government to satisfy
its burden of proof in an Exemption 1 case. The accepted standard today for granting summary judgment
to the Government without conducting an in camera inspection is that expressed in Hayden v. National
Security Agency/Central Security Service, 608 F.2d 1381, 1387 (D.C. Cir. 1979):
The affidavits must show, with reasonable specificity, why the documents fall within the exemption. The affidavits will not suffice if the
agency's claims are conclusory, merely reciting statutory standards, of if they are too vague or sweeping. If the affidavits provide specific
information to place the documents within the exemption category, if this information is not contradicted in the record, and if there is not
evidence of agency bad faith, then summary judgment is appropriate without in camera review of the documents.
Thus, the prevailing principle today seems to be that the courts should normally defer to an agency's judgment that disclosure would endanger the national security since "that judgment is based on information, experience and expertise to which we [the courts] are not privy, and we will not lightly override it on the basis of our own understanding of what does nor does not constitute a danger to the country's security." American Friends Serv. Com. v. Dept. of Defense, 831 F.2d 441, 447 (3rd Cir. 1988). In one of the strongest pro-government decisions to date, another court gave an unequivocal no t the question of "whether, when the DCI makes a judgment that documents could reveal intelligence sources or methods, the courts may, in the absence of evidence of bad faith, effectively go behind that judgment and order him to produce what he has determined to be exempt for reasons of national security." Knight v. CIA, 872 F.2d 660, 663 (5th Cir. 1989). The allusion in the 1996 Amendments to courts according substantial weight to agencies on some matters seems to be an implicit recognition of this principle. 5 U.S.C. §552(a)(4)(B).
In Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President, 97 F.3d 575,580 (D.C. Cir. 1996), the court reached a
new high in the degree of deference shown to agencies in Exemption 1 cases:
In national security cases, a district court exercises wide discretion when it limits the number of documents it reviews [in camera]. This
[deference] has two benefits. First, it makes it less likely that sensitive information will be disclosed. Second, if there is an unauthorized
disclosure, having reduced the number of people with access to the information makes it easier to pinpoint the source of the leak.
For other expressions of the standard to be used in testing the sufficiency of an agency affidavit in an Exemption 1 case see Abbotts v. NRC, 766 F.2d 604 (D.C. Cir. 1985); Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724 (D.C. Cir. 1981); Holy Spirit Ass'n v. CIA, 636 F.2d 838 (D.C. Cir. 1980); Lesar v. Dept. of Justice, 636 F.2d 472 (D.C. Cir. 1980); and Halperin v. CIA, 629 F.2d 144 (D.C. Cir. 1980).
For an example of a court's striking down of the agency's affidavit as inadequate, see Allen v. CIA, 636 F.2d 1287 (D.C. Dir. 1980). Even in this case, however, the court did not order the records released; rather it remanded for the conducting of an in camera inspection. In doing so it stated that while the decision whether to conduct such an inspection is a matter within the district court's discretion, there are circumstances in which it would be an abuse of discretion not to conduct one. It then listed certain factors which a court should consider in making its decision:
1. judicial economy;
2. nature of the agency's affidavits (i.e., whether conclusory or not);
3. evidence of bad faith on the part of the agency;
4. existence of a dispute concerning the content of a record;
5. inspection is proposed by the agency;
6. existence of a strong public interest in disclosure.
These criteria are relevant to all FOIA-related questions concerning in camera inspections, not just those involving Exemption 1.
In another example, the court, while remanding for an additional affidavit, did not rule out "a system of categorizing. . .particularly where the documents in question are voluminous and the same exemption applies to a large number of segments. The availability of categorization does not, however, supplant the demand for particularity." King v. Dept. of Justice, 830 F.2d 210, 224 (D.C. Cir. 1987). The court also directed that on remand the agency must specifically address the fact that the records were more than 40 years old.
All of these decisions illustrate that the courts have been extremely reluctant to order disclosure of records which an agency has classified. There usual approach when dissatisfied with an agency's affidavit has been either to order a new affidavit, or (as illustrated by Allen, supra), an in camera inspection.
In August 1985, however, the FBI was required to release classified records in an FOIA suit after both the Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist denied motions for a stay pending appeal. Powell v. United States, Civil Action No. C82-0326-MHP (N.D. Cal. 1985), stay den.No. 85-1918 (9th Cir.), stay den. No. A-84 (U.S.)(Rehnquist, J.). This decision apparently stemmed from the court's dissatisfaction with what it perceived as delaying tactics, and a repeated failure to submit affidavits which justified withholding, by the FBI. It should be noted that the records at issue were more than 30 years old; this fact may well have influenced the result.
The courts have recently, however, begun to show less deference to agencies which file conclusory affidavits with little supporting information in FOIA ligitation involving Exemption 1. Halpern v. FBI, 181 F.3d 279 (2d Cir. 1999); Campbell v. U.S. Dept. of Justic, 164 F.3d 20 (D.C. Cir. 1998); Weatherhead v. USA, 157 F.3d 735 (9th Cir. 1998). In Campbell, the court said that "[a]mong the reasons that a declaration [filed in support of withholding under Exemption 1] might be insufficient are lack of detail and specificity, bad faith, and failure to account for contrary record evidence." 164 F.3d at 30. It held that the declaration in that case failed under the first test.
It was Weatherhead, however, that presented the most serious challenge to the government's view that courts should defer to their Exemption 1 claims in virtually all cases. The record at issue was a letter from the British Home Office to the Department of Justice concerning the extradition of two persons. The court rejected the government's argument that it could properly classify any communication from a foreign government, regardless of content. It held instead that the government must explain the harm to national security that could result from disclosure [of the specific record(s) at issue]." 157 F.3d at 742.
The government successfully sought certiorari from the Supreme Court, which set the case for argument in December 1999. On December 3, however, it granted the government's motion to vacate the 9th Circuit's decision. See, Access Reports, Vol. 25, No. 23 at 1-3. The bases for the motion were that the government had learned that the British had already disclosed the bulk of the letter to the requester, and that the case was therefore moot. Thus, a Supreme Court ruling on the correctness of the lower courts' chipping away at the degree of deference to be afforded the government in Exemption 1 cases will have to wait for another day.
It is clear that courts will not automatically reject an agency's Exemption 1 claim solely because (1) some information about the same subject has been made public, Simmons v. Dept. of Justice, 796 F.2d 709 (4th Cir. 1986); Afshar v. Dept. of State, 702 F.2d 1125 (D.C. Cir. 1983); Phillippi v. CIA, 655 F.2d 1325 (D.C. Cir. 1981), or (2) the actions described in the records may have exceeded the agency's statutory authority. Edwards v. CIA, 512 F.Supp. 689 (D.D.C. 1981). With regard to the former point, it now seems clear that to lose the ability to assert an Exemption 1 claim through disclosure, not only must the disclosure be of exactly the same information, it must also be an "official" release. Leaks, releases by congressional committees, or disclosures by former officials do not waive the exemption. See e.g., Hudson River Sloop Clearwater v. Dept. of Navy, 891 F.2d 414 (2d Cir. 1989); Public Citizen v. Dept. of State, 11 F.3d 198 (D.C. Cir. 1993).
In the case of records of the CIA, only that agency may waive an Exemption 1 claim. In recognizing this principle, the court held that ruling otherwise would mean that "other agencies of the Executive Branch -- including those with no duties related to national security -- could obligate agencies with responsibility in that sphere to reveal classified information." Frugone v. CIA, 169 F.3d 772, 775 (D.C. Cir. 1999).
The passage of time is also not a per se bar to withholding under Exemption 1, provided that the "agency declares through its affidavits that the responsive material had been reviewed to assure the continued accuracy of its original classification, and that a determination has been made that the withheld information still poses a security risk if released. . ." Oglesby v. U.S. Dept. of Army, 79 F.3d 1172, 1183 (D.C. Cir. 1996).
In Taylor v. Dept. of the Army, 684 F.2d 99 (D.C. Cir. 1982), the court upheld the classification of a compilation of records which the agency admitted could not be properly classified individually. Accord, American Friends Serv. Com. v. Dept. of Defense, 831 F.2d 441, 445 (3rd Cir. 1987). The court added that in such a situation the issue of reasonably segregable portions had no relevance "because it ignores the danger to which the compilation theory points -- that information harmless in itself might be harmful when disclosed in context." Id.
Sometimes the Government contends that it cannot properly justify its Exemption 1 claim without disclosing information which is itself exempt. In such cases it can seek leave to file an in camera affidavit. Courts have allowed these to be filed but only with great reluctance. E.g., Phillippi v. CIA, 546 F.2d 1009 (D.C. 1976). It is clear that the question of whether to permit the filing of an in camera affidavit is within the district court's discretion. Holy Spirit Ass'n v. CIA, 636 F.2d 838 (D.C. Cir. 1980). Although this procedure is used primarily in Exemption 1 cases, it may be employed under appropriate circumstances for other exemptions (e.g., Exemption 7).
As described above in the discussion of Section (a)(4)(B) an agency may validly argue on occasion that the fact of whether it has records within the scope of an FOIA request is itself properly classified information and thus withholdable under Exemption 1. Phillippi, supra; Miller v. Casey, 730 F.2d 793 (D.C. Cir. 1984). This action is commonly referred to as a Glomar denial. See Minier v. Central Intelligence Agency, 88 F.3d 797, 800 (9th Cir. 1996).
Prior to the issuance of E.O. 12065 there had been some question as to whether an agency could validly classify a record after receipt of an FOIA request. Section 1-606 expressly authorized such classification, and this authorization was continued in Section 1.6(d) of E.O. 12356. The procedure has been approved judicially. Baez v. Dept. of Justice, 647 F.2d 1328 (D.C. Cir. 1980); Lesar v. Dept. of Justice, 636 F.2d 472 (D.C. Cir. 1980).
Exemption 2. . . .related solely to the internal personnel rules
and practices of an agency.
This exemption was originally quite controversial because of significant differences between the explanatory language in the Senate and House Reports and the somewhat strained rationale used to justify withholding "confidential" law enforcement manuals under this exemption.
Congress mooted this question by amending Exemption 7 in the 1986 amendments so that it now encompasses all "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes" whose disclosure could produce one or more of the specified categories of harm. This deletion of the requirement that the records be "investigatory," together with the language added to subparagraph (E) (see discussion below for Exemption 7), means that many of these law enforcement manuals should now be eligible for withholding under Exemption 7. There still remains a place in FOIA jurisprudence for the "high-2" rationale, however, for there are materials other than law enforcement manuals whose release might facilitate circumvention of a statute or agency regulation.
In Kaganove v. EPA, No. 86-C-5795, E.D. Ill, 1987), a district court judge found that crediting plans were not protected by Exemption 2. However, that decision was reversed by the Seventh Circuit, which noted, under a high-2 analysis, that "the objectives of government agencies. . .would be completely defeated by requiring disclosure of documents relating to the employment process that are effective only when kept confidential." Kaganove v. EPA, 856 F.2d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 1988).
In cases decided only two months apart, the Ninth and Tenth Circuits held that the phrase "internal personnel" modifies both "rules" and "practices." In both instances a chapter of the Audubon Society had requested records listing nesting sites of a bird on the endangered species list from the Forest Service. The agency had denied both requests on a high-2 rationale, arguing that release would make it easier for someone to locate and harm the birds in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The requesters had attempted to eliminate this ground for withholding by offering to enter into a non-disclosure agreement. The courts declined to hold that such an agreement could justify an agency's treating requesters differently, but ordered disclosure on the ground that the records were not "internal personnel practices," and thus did not satisfy Exemption 2's threshold test. Maricopa Audubon Society v. U.S. Forest Service, 108 F.3d 1082 (9th Cir. 1997); Audubon Society v. U.S. Forest Service, 104 F.3d 1201 (10th Cir. 1997).
The courts have interpreted "solely" in this context tomean "predominantly." E.g., Abraham & Rose, P.L.C. v. U.S., 138 F.3d 1075 (6th Cir. 1998).
The D.C. Circuit held that CIA filing and routing instructions were not covered. Allen v. CIA, 636 F.2d 1287 (D.C. Cir. 1980). The FBI's informant codes have been held to be withholdable under "low-2." E.g., Massey v. FBI, 3 F.3d 620 (2d Cir. 1993); Lesar v. Dept. of Justice, 636 F.2d 472 (D.C. Cir. 1980). More recently, this same court held that an agency properly withheld "internal time deadlines and procedures, recordkeeping procedures, instructions on which agency officials [for agency employees] to contact for assistance, and guidelines on when clearance from Washington is necessary for certain decisions" under this exemption. Schiller v. NLRB, 964 F.2d 1205, 1208 (D.C. Cir. 1992).
The D.C. Circuit has held that low-2 does not protect the names
and addresses of the personnel on an Air Force base. Schwaner v.
Dept. of Air Force, 898 F.2d 793 (D.C. Cir. 1990). Strangely, the
government did not assert Exemption 6 in this case.
Exemption 3. . .specifically exempted from disclosure by statute
(other than 552b of this title), provided that such statute (A)
requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a
manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes
particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types
of matters to be withheld.
As originally passed in 1966 this exemption applied to records which were "specifically exempted from disclosure by statute." The current language printed above resulted from congressional dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court's decision in FAA Administrator v. Robertson, 422 U.S. 255 (1975).
The statute at issue in that case was 49 U.S.C. §1504, which authorizes the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, upon objection to release from the submitter, to withhold certain records whenever he determines that "a disclosure of such information would adversely affect the interest of such person [i.e., the submitter] and is not required in the interests of the public." The D.C. Circuit had held that this was not an Exemption 3 statute because it place no limits on the Administrator's exercise of discretion to withhold. Robertson v. Butterfield, 498 F.2d 1031 (D.C. Cir. 1974). At this time there was a split among the courts of appeals which had considered this issue. For the contra view see People of State of California v. Weinberger, 505 F.2d 767 (9th Cir. 1974).
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the granting of broad discretion did not disqualify a statute under Exemption 3, and that the rationale adopted by the D.C. Circuit would have the undesirable result of repealing numerous statutes by implication. "The discretion vested by Congress in the FAA, in both its nature and scope, is broad. There is not, however, an inevitable inconsistency between the general congressional intent to replace the broad standard of the former Administrative Procedure Act and its intent to preserve, for air transport regulation, a broad degree of discretion on which information is to be protected in the public interest in order to ensure continuing access to the sources of sensitive information necessary to the regulation of air transport." Robertson, supra, 422 U.S. at 266.
Congress expressed its dissatisfaction with the decision by including a provision in the Government in the Sunshine Act (P.L. 94-409, signed September 13, 1976, and effective 180 days later) which amended Exemption 3 to its current form. The legislative history of this act is compiled in Sunshine Act Source Book, a Joint Committee Print of the 94th Cong., 2d Sess.
The proposed amendment first appeared in H.R. 11656, which was introduced on February 3, 1976. The initial language was: "required to be withheld from the public by any statute establishing particular criteria or referring to particular types of information." Sunshine Act Source Book at 492. In the Judiciary Committee it was revised to read "required or permitted to be withheld. . ." Id. at 511. The Committee stated that the purpose of amending Exemption 3 was "to overrule the decision of the Supreme Court in Administrator, FAA v. Robertson. . ." Id. at 534. It listed the following statutes as examples of ones which would qualify under the amended Exemption 3: 42 U.S.C. §§2000e-5(b) and 2000e-8(b) (Civil Rights Act of 1964); 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(3) (Federal Election Campaign Act); and 49 U.S.C. §1461 (Federal Aviation Act of 1958).
It then explained that the phrase "or permitted" had been added because the original proposal was "unduly restrictive" and would not have included "statutes which permit the agency to determine whether such information should be released or not." Id. at 557. It appears that, despite the above expression of intent, this version would not have overruled Robertson since the statute at issue there does permit withholding. This view is supported by Congressman Moorhead's statement during debate that "an unwise effort to reverse. . . Robertson. . .has been altered. Sunshine Act Source Book at 620.
The proposed amendment was further amended from the floor of the House to read: "specifically exempted from disclosure by statute (other than section 552b of this title) provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld." Sunshine Act Source Book at 689.
Congressman McCloskey, the amendment's sponsor, explained that the requirements of clause (B) were intended to apply only to statutes which permitted withholding and would have no effect on ones which required it. He described the amendment's intent as being to overturn Robertson without disturbing broad statutes (i.e., ones which did not specify particular types of records) which required withholding.
When the bill went to conference, this version was retained except that the phrase "in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue" was added to clause (A). Sunshine Act Source Book at 790. The Conference Report indicates simply that "the conferees intend this language to overrule the decision of the Supreme Court in Robertson. . ." Sunshine Act Source Book at 807.
This legislative history is important because of the varying interpretations which have been placed on the significance of the modifications which took place. It is beyond the scope of this discussion to resolve the questions of whether they signified a broadening of the amended exemption's scope, and (if so) how much of one. The reader should be aware, however, that these disputes do exist.
It is generally agreed that under the current Exemption 3 a statute qualifies if it meets any one of three alternative criteria:
1. it requires that the records be withheld (i.e., gives the agency no choice); or
2. grants discretion on whether to withhold but provides sufficient specific criteria to guide the exercise of that discretion; or
3. describes with sufficient specificity the types of records to be withheld. American Jewish Congress v. Kreps, 574 F.2d 624 (D.C. Cir. 1978). Se also, Lam Lek Chong v. DEA, 929 F.2d 729 (D.C. Cir. 1991).
In Kreps the court held that 50 U.S.C. §2406(c) (Export Administration Act of 1969) was not an Exemption 3 statute. See also Church of Scientology v. U.S. Postal Service, 633 F.2d 1327 (9th Cir. 1980) (39 U.S.C. §410(c)(6)). For examples of decisions holding that statutes do qualify under Exemption 3 see Seymour v. Barabba, 559 F.2d 806 (D.C. Cir. 1977) (13 U.S.C. §9); Ray v. Turner, 587 F.2d 1187 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (50 U.S.C. §§403g and 403(d)(3); Chamberlain v. Kurtz, 589 F.2d 827 (5th Cir. 1979) (26 U.S.C. §6103(c)); Founding Church of Scientology v. NSA, 610 F.2d 824 (D.C. Cir. 1979) (50 U.S.C. §402); Lee Pharmaceuticals v. Kreps, 577 F.2d 610 (9th Cir. 1978) (35 U.S.C. §122).
An interesting dispute arose as to whether 26 U.S.C. §6103 should be treated as an Exemption 3 statute, or as a statute which creates its own system for the handling of tax return information separate and apart from the FOIA. The former view, which has been accepted by almost all the circuits that have considered the question, clearly seems to be the correct one (e.g., implied statutory repeals not favored). However, the IRS continued to argue the other position, but abandoned that argument after the D.C. Circuit ruled in Church of Scientology of Cal. v. IRS, 792 F.2d 146 (D.C. Cir. 1986). See also Grasso v. IRS, 785 F.2d 70 (3rd Cir. 1986); Long v. IRS, 742 F.2d 1173 (9th Cir. 1984); Linsteadt v. IRS, 729 F.2d 998 (5th Cir. 1984); Currie v. IRS, 704 F.2d 523 (11th Cir. 1983). But see Cheek v. IRS, 703 F.2d 271 (7th Cir. 1983). In late 1988 the Tenth Circuit joined the majority, leaving the Seventh Circuit as the only one which had accepted the IRS argument. DeSalvo v. IRS, 861 F.2d 1217 (10th Cir. 1988).
In Medina-Hincapie v. Dept. of State, 700 F.2d 737 (D.C. Cir. 1983), the court held that 8 U.S.C. §1202(f) satisfied Clause A of Exemption 3, despite the fact that it gave the agency discretion to release covered records to a court, on the theory that all the clause required was that there be no discretion to release to members of the public.
In cases where a statute qualifies under criteria number 2 of Exemption 3 (i.e., statute grants discretion but provides sufficiently specific guidelines for its exercise), courts will not conduct a de novo review of the agency's exercise of its discretion. Retired R.R. Workers v. U.S. R.R. Retirement Bd., 830 F.2d 331 (D.C. Cir. 1987).
Another interesting issue was presented in J.P. Stevens & Co., Inc. v. Perry, 710 F.2d 136 (4th Cir. 1983) The court rejected the agency's claim that 42 U.S.C. §2000e-5(b) was an Exemption 3 statute with regard to an FOIA request from a party in an EEOC proceeding, despite the fact that it prohibited disclosures to members of the public.
The issue of whether the statute in question qualifies under Exemption 3 is not the only one presented by such an exemption claim. Assuming that the statute does qualify, the court must also determine (1) whether the agency complied with any procedural requirements in the statute, and (2) whether the records in question are among those covered by the statute. Sims v. CIA, 642 F.2d 562 (D.C. Cir. 1980), 709 F.2d 95 (D.C. Cir. 1983); Long v. IRS, 596 F.2d 362 (9th Cir. 1979); Brandon v. Eckard, 569 F.2d 683 (D.C. Cir. 1977). Review of these issues is also de novo, even if that means a de novo review of an agency head's determination that the statutory criteria for a discretionary withholding have ben satisfied. Long v. IRS, 742 F.2d 1173 (9th Cir. 1984).
An interesting aspect of this inquiry is presented in Public Citizen Health Research Group v. FDA, 704 F.2d 1280 (D.C. Cir. 1983). It was clear that 21 U.S.C. §360j(h) mandated that FDA not issue a summary of the information relating to the safety of intraocular lenses until after the issuance of an administrative order concerning the device. The district court had ruled (539 F.Supp. 1320 (D.D.C. 1982)) that this statute thus qualified under Exemption 3 with regard to the raw data (i.e., test results) on which the summaries were based. The court of appeals reversed, holding that "the statute does, to be sure, control the timing of disclosure of those summaries, but that does not, in itself, compel a conclusion that raw data constituting neither trade secrets nor confidential commercial information cannot be disclosed either before or after the release of agency-prepared summaries." 704 F.2d at 1285.
In Founding Church of Scientology v. Bell, 603 F.2d 945 (D.C. Cir. 1979), the court held that Rule 26(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure was not an Exemption 3 statute on the ground that these rules were not statutes. It used language which was broad enough to exclude the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure as well.
That question was raised in Piccolo v. Dept. of Justice, Civ. No. 80-2315 (D.D.C. Apr. 22, 1981), in which the court relied on the above case to hold that Rule 6(e) of the Criminal Rules was not an Exemption 3 statute because it had not been "affirmatively adopted by the legislature as all statutes must be." Slip op. at 2, quoting 603 F.2d at 952. This decision was an extremely significant one since it is Rule 6(e) which protects the integrity of grand jury proceedings. The court reached its decision despite its recognition that this rule "was designed to preserve an important constitutional process, and that this process will be seriously endangered unless secrecy is ensured." Slip op. at 2.
Subsequently, however, the government moved for reconsideration of this portion of the order on the ground that Rule 6(e) was affirmatively adopted by Congress in the same manner as a statute. P.L. 95-78, 91 Stat. 319 (1977). The court agreed with this argument and on May 13, 1981, amended its April 22 order to hold that Rule 6(e) is an Exemption 3 statute. This result has also been upheld by a court of appeals. Fund for Constitutional Gov. v. National Archives, 656 F.2d 856 (D.C. Cir. 1981).
In Senate of Puerto Rico v. Dept. of Justice, 823 F.2d 574 (D.C. Cir. 1987), the court discussed at length the scope of Rule 6(e)'s coverage. It held that the rule did not justify withholding under the FOIA simply because a record has been considered by a grand jury; there also has to be some link so that disclosure of the record would tend to reveal proceedings of the grand jury. "Automatically sealing all that a grand jury sees or hears would enable the government to shield any information from public view indefinitely by the simple expedient of presenting it to the grand jury." 823 F.2d 582. Therefore, the government must provide "some affirmative demarcation of a nexus between disclosure and revelation of a protected aspect of the grand jury investigation." Id. at 584.
The court expanded on this holding in Washington Post Co. v. Dept. of Justice, 863 F.2d 96 (D.C. Cir. 1988), which involved a report prepared by Eli Lilly and Co. for reasons having nothing to do with a grand jury. A grand jury had subsequently subpoenaed it, however, and the government had attempted to justify withholding under Rule 6(e) and Exemption 3. The court rejected the attempt because no one would have known of the report's connection with a grand jury if the government had not publicized it. "The relevant inquiry is whether the document would reveal the inner workings of the grand jury, such as witness names, or the substance of testimony of the direction and strategy of the investigation . . .Moreover, the document itself must reveal the inner workings; the government cannot immunize a document by publicizing the link." 863 F.2d at 100.
In Crooker v. Parole Commission, 760 F.2d 1 (1st Cir. 1985), the government contended that 18 U.S.C. §4208 was an Exemption 3 statute which authorized withholding all presentence reports in their entirety. The court agreed that the statute qualified but held that it authorized withholding only the three specific categories of information set forth in subsection (c). "It seems unlikely that Exemption 3 would allow withholding of the presentence report simply because Section 4208 is a statute which `refers to particular types of matters to be withheld,' even if none of the types of materials specifically excluded under Section 4208(c) is involved." Id. at 3.
Another interesting and long-running dispute has been that over whether 28 U.S.C. §534 (criminal history information; e.g., rap sheets) is an Exemption 3 statute. This dispute, which was brought to a head in a suit filed in 1979 (Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press v. Dept. of Justice, Civ. No. 79-3308 (D.D.C. 1985), presented the question of whether a statute could exempt records from disclosure within the meaning of Exemption 3 indirectly by expressly authorizing disclosure to certain specified recipients. On August 5, 1985, the district court finally ruled in this case that 28 U.S.C. §534 is an Exemption 3 statute. "This court is satisfied that pursuant to the above section, the information acquired and collected by the Attorney General may be released only to the agencies, organizations or states set forth in that section, and may not be released to the general public." Slip op. at 5.
The court of appeals reversed this decision, holding that the word "specifically" in Exemption 3 equates to "explicitly." "In other words, a statute that is claimed to qualify as an Exemption 3 withholding statute must, on its face, exempt matters from disclosure. We must find a congressional purpose to exempt matters from disclosure in the actual words of the statute. . .
not in the legislative history of the claimed withholding statute, nor in an agency's interpretation of the statute." Reporters Committee v. Dept. of Justice, 816 F.2d 730, 735 (D.C. Cir. 1987).
The Supreme Court has considered the amended Exemption 3 on several occasions. In its first post-amendment Exemption 3 case, the Court held that 15 U.S.C. §2055(b)(1) (Section 6(b)(1) of the Consumer Product Safety Act) was not an Exemption 3 statute. The argument in this case, however, involved primarily an interpretation of the Consumer Product Safety Act rather than the FOIA. The Court's opinion did reaffirm the principle that a statute which establishes mandatory conditions precedent to release can qualify as an Exemption 3 statute until those conditions are satisfied (even if compliance results in a conflict with the FOIA's administrative deadlines). CPSC v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102 (1980).
Exemption 3 was also involved in Baldrige v. Shapiro, 455 U.S. 345 (1982), but both parties agreed that the confidentiality provisions of the Census Act, 13 U.S.C. §§8 and 9, met the exemption's requirements. The issue was thus whether the records in question were covered by these statutes. The court held that they were.
The high court most recently addressed Exemption 3 in the context of national security, ruling in CIA v. Sims, 471 U.S. 159 (1985) that Section 102(d)(3) of the National Security Act of 1947, 50 U.S.C. §403(d)(3), was a (b)(3) statute. The pertinent section of the Act stated that the Director of Central Intelligence "shall be responsible for protecting intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure." The Court found this language allowed the CIA to withhold any information on intelligence sources and methods, regardless of whether they were considered confidential.
Subsequent decisions have made it clear that, after Sims, the CIA's ability to protect intelligence sources and methods under Exemption 3 through this statute far exceeds its ability to do so under Exemption 1. "The Supreme Court has unequivocally held that the Director of Central Intelligence may protect all intelligence sources, regardless of their provenance." Fitzgibbon v. CIA, 911 F.2d 755, 762 (D.C.Cir. 1990). If the Director believes that a source or method should be protected, Sims decrees that courts should not second guess him despite the records' apparent harmlessness, presence in the public domain, or age. "The assessment of harm to intelligence sources, methods and operations is entrusted to the Director of Central Intelligence, not to the courts." 911 F.2d at 766.
The court also concluded that Sims means "that the CIA may withhold domestic sources as it would foreign sources." 911 F.2d at 764. See also, Hunt v. CIA, 981 F.2d 1116 (9th Cir. 1992); Maynard v. CIA, 986 F.2d 547 (1st Cir. 1993); Sullivan v. CIA, 992 F.2d 1249 (1st Cir. 1993).
In Dept. of Justice v. Julian, 486 U.S. 1 (1988), the Court held that neither Rule 32(c)(3), Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, nor 18 U.S.C. §4208(c) of the Parole Act qualified as Exemption 3 statutes with regard to presentence reports in their entirety. It agreed that "both the Rule and the Parole Act specifically exempt from disclosure any information that relates to confidential sources, diagnostic opinions, and other information that may cause harm to the defendant or to third parties." Slip op. at 7. The Court refused to rule, however, that these provisions barred release of the entire report, particularly in light of the fact that both had recently been amended to ensure that presentence reports would be disclosed to their subjects.
Two of the most active Exemption 3 issues have involved 18
U.S.C. §1905 (referred to as the Trade Secrets Act) and 5 U.S.C.
§552a (Privacy Act). These issues will be discussed below in the
sections entitled "Reverse FOIA Cases" and "Interaction of the FOIA
and the Privacy Act" respectively.
Exemption 4. . . .trade secrets and commercial or financial
information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.
One of the most hotly contested arguments about the original FOIA concerned the meaning of this exemption. Part of the problem stemmed from its grammatical ambiguities, and part from the fact that it was revised between the 88th and 89th Congresses with no corresponding revision of the interpretative remarks in the report. As originally proposed it protected "trade secrets and other information obtained from the public and customarily privileged or confidential." When revised to its present form, (1) the word "other" was replaced by the phrase "commercial or financial," (2) the word "customarily" was deleted, and (3) "any person" was substituted for "the public." For a discussion of these problems see 1967 Blue Book at 32-34.
In the initial guidance the Attorney General argued "that Congress neither intended to exempt all commercial and financial information on the one hand, nor to require disclosure of all other privileged or confidential information on the other." Id. at 34. The second part of this argument was conclusively rejected in Consumers Union v. Veterans Admin., 301 F.Supp. 796 (S.D.N.Y. 1969), and is clearly no longer viable.
The universally accepted view of Exemption 4 is that it includes two categories of records:
1. trade secrets; and
2. ones containing information that is
a. commercial or financial,
b. obtained from a person, and
c. confidential or privileged.
It cannot be overemphasized that to fall within this second category, records must contain information which satisfies all three of the criteria.
The Consumers Union decision also established the principle that the "obtained from a person" criterion excluded information generated by a government agency (i.e., because agencies are not included within the definition of "person" found at 5 U.S.C. §551(a)(2)). This holding was contra to the view expressed by the Attorney General in the 1967 Blue Book at 34.
This criterion, however, applies only to the second category of Exemption 4 records. Thus there is nothing in the statutory language which would place government-generated trade secrets (e.g., the formulae for the inks and paper used in making currency) outside Exemption 4. Surprisingly, there has been no significant case law or discussion concerning this argument.
In Public Citizen Health Research Group v. FDA, 704 F.2d 1280 (D.C. Cir. 1983), the court considered the "difficult" question of whether certain health safety data required to be submitted by pharmaceutical manufacturers constituted trade secrets within the meaning of Exemption 4. It rejected an argument that trade secret as used in the FOIA should be given the broad meaning set forth in the Restatement of Torts. It went on to define the term, "solely for the purposes of FOIA Exemption 4, as a secret, commercially valuable plan, formula, process, or device that is used for the making, preparing, compounding, or processing of trade commodities and that can be said to be the end product of either innovation or substantiated effort." 704 F.2d at 1288. Accord, Anderson v. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 907 F.2d 936 (10th Cir. 1990).
In McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Widnall, 57 F.3d 1162 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (a reverse FOIA case), the plaintiff argued that the prices the government had paid it for satellite launch services were a trade secret. The court remanded for consideration of all Exemption 4 issues, but stated: "the idea that a price charged to the government could be a `trade secret' appears passing strange to us." 57 F.3d at 1164. In McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. NASA, 180 F.3d 303 (D.C. Cir. 1999), this same court retreated from this dicta by drawing a distinction between the total contract price (not exempt) and line pricing (possibly exempt depending on the facts). It dismissed the statement quoted above from Widnall with the comment that "we did not address the [issue of] competitive harm in that case." 180 F.3d at 306.
Most Exemption 4 cases have involved a dispute over whether the information was "confidential." The judicial interpretation of that criterion has undergone significant modification. Originally, the courts defined the test as being a subjective one of whether the person from whom it was obtained would customarily make it public. E.g., Sterling Drug v. FTC, 450 F.2d 698 (D.C. Cir. 1971).
In April, 1974, however, the D.C. Circuit, in what is still the
leading case interpreting Exemption 4, abandoned this subjective
test for an objective one. It held that neither the fact that a
submitter would not customarily make the information public, nor an
agency's promises of confidentiality, while relevant, were enough
to justify withholding. Its often-quoted standard is that
commercial or financial matter is "confidential" for the purposes of the exemption if disclosure of the information is likely to have
either of the following effects: (1) to impair the Government's ability to obtain necessary information in the future; or (2) to cause
substantial harm to the competitive position of the person from whom it was obtained.
National Parks and Conservation Ass'n v. Morton, 498 F.2d 765, 770 (D.C. Cir. 1974).
These criteria are commonly referred to as Test 1 and Test 2. Because information must be furnished voluntarily to be eligible for withholding under Test 1, a large majority of the post-National Parks decisions have involved Test 2. Although there was very little case law, it was originally agreed that Test 1 cannot be used for records whose submission the government can compel, even when they are supplied voluntarily, thereby allowing the government to avoid the time and expense of forcing submission. See Public Citizen Health Research Group v. FDA, 539 F.Supp. 1320, 1326 (D.D.C. 1982).
In a subsequent decision, however, the court indicated that while the fact that submission is mandatory is "a factor in deciding if governmental access to information will be impaired by disclosure. . .it is not necessarily dispositive." Public Citizen, supra, 704 F.2d at 1291, n.29.
The court fleshed out this holding in Critical Mass Energy Project v. NRC, 830 F.2d 278 (D.C. Cir. 1987)
(Critical Mass I). Plaintiff was seeking reports which a utility industry group prepared and gave voluntarily
to the NRC. The agency did, however, have the authority to compel submission. The court began its
analysis by recognizing that agencies' "may invoke exemption 4 on the basis of interests other than the two
identified in our National Parks test." 830 F.2d at 282. It had the following to say concerning impairment:
Therefore, to show the requisite impairment of the information-gathering ability, the agency must persuade the court either (1) that
cessation of INPO's voluntary submission of these reports would in fact deprive the agency of the information contained therein
or (2) that alternative available means for obtaining the INPO reports would entail a significant risk that the value of the submitted
reports would decrease.
Id. at 283.
Even if an agency has the power to compel submission, Test 1 of Exemption 4 could still apply, if the agency can show that "compelled production would entail qualitative impairment of the information contained therein." Id. at 284. In order to justify withholding under this theory, the agency "must spell out comprehensively both the nature of the information of which it fears it will be deprived, and the nexus between the disclosure sought by CMEP and the anticipated impairment." Id. at 286.
On remand, the district court expanded this rationale still further to hold that the agency could withhold the records under Exemption 4. It held that an agency could withhold under Test 1 of Exemption 4 despite the authority to compel production when it was clear that compulsion would adversely affect the agency's relationship with the private party and reduce the completeness of the information submitted. "The deterioration of the relationship, in this Court's opinion, represents a sufficient showing that NRC's efficiency and effectiveness would be impaired were it not permitted to honor its commitment to INPO to keep the INPO reports in confidence. . ." Critical Mass Energy Project v. NRC, 731 F.Supp. 554, 557 (D.D.C. 1990).
The court of appeals reversed, holding that the "possibility that disclosure of confidential [in the view of the submitter] records might create friction between a government agency and the preparer of those records" is not enough to justify withholding, even if established by firm evidence. Such a rule would, in the view of the court, allow the submitter of such records to determine their status under the FOIA by threatening to resist submission in the future if the agency were to release them." Critical Mass Energy Project v. NRC, 931 F.2d 939 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (Critical Mass II).
The court then went on to state: "We fully agree that the Commission would be justified in withholding the INPO reports if limiting their circulation were truly necessary to maintain their quality. However, we have searched the present record in vain for any evidence that would justify such a finding." 939 F.2d at 946. The court remanded for further consideration of the issue, noting that the continuing existence of some uncertainty was not fatal to a decision, since "the adverse effects of disclosure for purposes of Exemption 4 need not be proven with mathematical certainty." 939 F.2d at 974.
It subsequently vacated this decision, however, and granted the government's petition for rehearing en banc expressly for the purpose of considering whether the National Parks tests were still good law. Critical Mass Energy Project v. NRC, 942 F.2d 799 (D.C. Cir. 1991). On August 21, 1992, the court reaffirmed National Parks. Critical Mass Energy Project v. NRC, 975 F.2d 871 (D.C. Cir. 1992). It did modify Test 1, however, by establishing a rule that information submitted voluntarily met the Exemption 4 confidentiality requirement if it were of a kind that the submitter ordinarily did not make public. The burden of establishing the submitter's custom remains with the agency seeking to withhold the records.
A more difficult question is presented by situations in which participation in a program is voluntary (e.g., bidding on a government contract or submitting produce for grading), but submission of certain records is mandatory for those who wish to participate. There had not been much case law on this subject prior to Critical Mass, but in 1980 the First Circuit did hold that Test 1 could be used to withhold a technical proposal (part of a negotiated procurement) on the ground that release "would induce bidders to submit proposals that do not include novel ideas." Orion Research, Inc. v. EPA, 615 F.2d 551, 554 (1st Cir. 1980). There are still many questions with regard to Test 1 that have not yet been answered. The Department of Justice's Office of Information and Privacy has, however, taken the position in its guidance on how to interpret Critical Mass that the submission of records in instances such as bidding on government contracts is mandatory rather than voluntary for purposes of an Exemption 4 analysis. FOIA Update, Spring 1993 at 3-5. The District Court for the District of Columbia has adopted this position as a matter of law. See, e.g., McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. NASA, 895 F.Supp. 319 (D.D.C. 1995). There is no persuasive case law to the contrary.
In McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. NASA, 981 F.Supp. 12 15 (D.D.C. 1997), the court described the district court precedent in the D.C. Circuit as "uniformly [supporting] the notion that financial and commercial information, including CLINs and other key contract information, is `required' when submitted in a government contract bidding situation." The court of appeals declined to address this issue, however, because of its ruling that, regardless of whether the submission was voluntary or mandatory, the records involved were exempt under Test 2 of National Parks. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. NASA, 180 F.3d 303 (D.C. Cir. 1999).
Still another variation of this question was presented in Washington Post Co. v. HHS, 865 F.2d 320 (D.C. Cir. 1989), which involved financial disclosure forms required to be filed by scientists who work as consultants for the National Cancer Institute. The government attempted to withhold under Exemption 4 on the ground that disclosure would discourage people from serving as consultants. The court held that the government had waived that argument in this case and did not rule on its validity, thus adding to the list of unanswered questions on the issue of whether some submitted records voluntarily.
Actually, despite the relatively large number of decided cases, there are also more questions than answers with regard to Test 2. No court has ever devised a comprehensive explanation of what is meant by the phrase "to cause substantial harm to the competitive position. . ." What is clear is that it is not sufficient merely to allege harm in conclusory terms. In addition to identifying the type (or types) of harm that might occur, the agency must be able to establish a causal basis for its assertion that release of the specific information in question is likely to cause this harm. A good outline of the type of proof an agency is required to present can be found in Pacific Architects & Eng., Inc. v Renegotiation Bd., 505 F.2d 383, 385 (D.C. Cir. 1974).
It appears that it is not sufficient under Test 2 to argue that release would "adversely affect the goodwill of. . .[the submitter] and further present opportunities for adverse publicity and unwarranted litigation. . ." Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. General Services Admin., 384 F.Supp. 996, 1007 (D.D.C. 1974). Accord, General Elec. Co. v. NRC, 750 F.2d 1394, 1402 (7th Cir. 1975).
In GC Micro Corp. v. Defense Logistics Agency, 33 F.3d 1109 (9th Cir. 1994), the court held that records which contractors were required to submit concerning their utilization of small disadvantaged businesses (i.e., SF 294's) did not satisfy Test 2. These records contained the following categories of information:
1. estimated subcontract dollars;
2. contractor's SDB subcontracting goals;
3. actual dollars paid to SDB subcontractors; and
4. actual percentage of work subcontracted to SDB's.
The court rejected the argument that release would place these contractors at a disadvantage in future solicitations because of its conclusion that "the data is made up of too many fluctuating variables for competitors to gain any advantage from the disclosure of the SF 294's." 33 F.3d at 1115.
There are, of course, cases in which the court has held that the information was protected by Test 2. E.g.,
Continental Oil Co. v. FPC, 519 F.2d 31, 35 (5th Cir. 1975):
The information to be furnished is detailed -- a contract by contract, field by field exposition of the petitioners' product marketing.
Prices, names of purchasers, terms and times of price renegotiations must be disclosed [to the agency]. The likelihood that
delivery of these intimate facts to petitioners' competitors would be harmful is apparent. Not only could it affect sales by enabling
competitors to learn contract termination dates but it also affects product acquisition.
See also National Parks and Conservation Assn v. Kleppe, 547 F.2d 673 (D.C. Cir. 1976) (National Parks II).
For an example of an acceptable rationale for withholding under Test 2 see Timken Co. v. Customs
Service, 531 F.Supp. 194, 198 (D.D.C. 1981):
The release of the pre-January 1, 1973, information is likely to. . .allow competitors to discern the strengths and weaknesses of
the marketing strategies of these companies and target their weak points for attack. Competitors also could imitate the successful
policies of these companies. . .Further, customer relations likely would be disrupted by the breach of confidentiality and increased
competition from competitors.
Another illustrative decision on Test 2 is Public Citizen, cited above in the discussion of Test 1. The court held that Test 2 justified withholding where release of the test results required to be submitted to the FDA would allow competitors to receive the benefits of these costly testing programs (e.g., determine where to focus their research) without having to incur any of the expense. It also held that "substantial competitive injury is likely to befall a manufacturer" who is forced to disclose the sales volume of a particular item in his product line." 539 F.Supp. at 1330. On appeal the court noted that the type of harm recognized by Exemption 4 was limited to that which would result "from the affirmative use of proprietary information by competitors. Competitive harm should not be taken to mean simply any injury to competitive position, as might flow from customer or employee disgruntlement or from the embarrassing publicity attendant upon public revelations concerning, for example, illegal or unethical payments to government officials or violations of civil rights, environmental or safety laws." Public Citizen, supra, 704 F.2d at 1291, n.30.
In Greenberg v. FDA, 775 F.2d 1169, 1176 (D.C. Cir. 1985), the court held that the agency could use Test 2 to withhold test data which a company had to submit to obtain FDA approval and which was costly to generate. "We refuse to adopt a reading of FOIA exemption 4 that would allow competitors, who ordinarily must expend considerable amounts of time and money to acquire even an approximation of the FDA test, to benefit from agency disclosure at the expense of the submitters." However, since one of the judges who voted in the majority had died before the opinion was issued, the court later vacated the opinion and reconsidered its decision; what had once been the dissent became the majority opinion on reconsideration. 803 F.2d 1213 (D.C. Cir. 1986).
This same principle was at issue in Frazee v. U.S. Forest Service, 97 F.3d 367 (9th Cir. 1996), a reverse-FOIA case. Frazee was trying to block disclosure of the operating plan he had submitted in his winning
proposal to manage recreational areas in a national forest. He argued that:
[he] had expended considerable cost and effort in preparing the Plan. . .and that the information in the plan is [his company's]
individual and unique response to the Solicitation requirements. [He] also claim[ed] that the disclosure of the Plan would enable
a competitor to copy and improve the Plan and thus put [him] at a competitive disadvantage in subsequent bidding competitions.
97 F.3d at 371. The court rejected these arguments that most of the information in the Plan was readily available from either personal information or easily obtainable printed sources.
In the Winter 1981 issue of FOIA Update at 5, the Justice Department advised that the basic terms and conditions of a government contract (i.e., what the government has agreed to buy and how much it has agreed to pay for it -- including intermediate price schedules) could not be withheld under Exemption 4. See, Acumenics Research & Tech. v. Dept. of Justice, 843 F.2d 800 (4th Cir 1988). See FAR §15, 1003(b)(1)(iv). But see discussion in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Widnall, and McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. NASA.
In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997, P.L. No. 104-201, Congress settled the issue of proposals submitted by potential contractors in response to a request for proposals. It established Exemption 3 protection for all such proposals except one "set forth or incorporated by reference in a contract entered into between the agency and the contractor that submitted the proposal." 10 U.S.C. §2305(g) (armed services acquisitions), 41 U.S.C. §303B(m) (civilian agency acquisitions).
There is some authority that Test 2 is not applicable to information submitted from a non-profit entity, even though the same information from a for-profit organization would be protectible, and even though it can be shown that release would cause financial injury to the submitter. Washington Research Project, Inc. v. HEW, 504 F.2d 238 (D.C. Cir. 1974). But see American Airlines v. Nat'l Mediation Board, 588 F.2d 863 (2d Cir. 1978), in which the court held that information submitted by a labor union could be withheld because the union, even though non-profit, was engaged in "trade or commerce."
Although the question has not been specifically addressed in the case law, it seems clear that Test 2 would still apply when the competitive injury would be to B, which had submitted the information to A, which in turn had submitted it to a federal agency.
The First Circuit has continued to break new ground in the Exemption 4 area. In 9 to 5 Organ. v. Board of Governors of Fed. Res., 721 F.2d 1 (1st Cir. 1983), it relied on a footnote in National Parks I (498 F.2d at 770, n.17) as indicating the D.C. Circuit's recognition of "the possibility that government interests other than the ability to obtain information in the future could justify non-disclosure in the future." 721 F.2d at 8. The court rejected, however, the government's advocacy of a return to an expectation of privacy standard, holding "that information will not be regarded as confidential under Exemption 4 unless it can be demonstrated that disclosure will harm a specific interest that Congress sought to protect by enacting the exemption." Id. at 9.
It expressly recognized that it was establishing the principle that Tests 1 and 2 from National Parks I were not the exclusive justifications for withholding records under Exemption 4. It also made clear, however, that the burden is on the government "to identify the particular interest, and, also, to demonstrate how that interest will be harmed by public disclosure of the specific information which had been requested." Id. at 10.
The records at issue here were anonymous salary survey data (of private firms) which were compiled and distributed to a subscription list by a private organization under a promise they would be kept confidential. Violators of this agreement would not receive future data. The district court had held that Test 1 was not satisfied because the data was not essential to the agency's functioning. On the basis of its expansive reading of National Parks I (described above), the First Circuit vacated this decision, holding that "in view of the legitimate governmental interest of efficient operation, it would do violence to the statutory purpose of exemption 4 were the government to be disadvantaged by disclosing information which serves a valuable purpose and is useful for the effective execution of its statutory responsibilities. Id. at 11.
In Public Citizen Health Research Group v. FDA, 185 F.3d 898 (D.C. Cir. 1999), the court engaged in an extremely confusing discussion of whether Exemption 4 required a balancing of the public interest (i.e., informing the public about the workings of government) that disclosure would serve, against the competitive harm likely to result from the disclosure. The court ultimately held that it does not, but its analysis raised more questions than it answered. E.g., at one point it stated that "the Congress has already determined the relevant public interest; if through disclosure `the public would learn something about the workings of th Government,'. . . the information should be disclosed unless it comes within a specific exemption. 185 F.3d at 904. Despite the apparent plain language, it is difficult to believe that the court actually meant that agencies did not have to disclose non-exempt records unless doing so would inform the pulic about the workings of the government.
The concurring opinion confuses the issue even more, for that judge described the majority opinion as meaning "that even if disclosure were the only way to prevent the loss of human life, that [fact] would count for nothing as against a showing by the [submitter] that disclosure would cause substantial harm to its competitive position." 185 F.3d at 907.
The word "privileged" was generally considered to have been rendered meaningless by the addition
(described above) of the requirement that the information be "commercial or financial," for it is not often that
commercial or financial information which is within one of the accepted privileges (e.g., doctor-patient) would
be submitted to an agency. A court has upheld, however, the Department of the Interior's withholding of
detailed statements by law firms of work they had done for the Hopi Indians as privileged. "The vouchers
reveal strategies developed by Hopi counsel in anticipation of preventing or preparing for legal action to
safeguard tribal interests. Such communications are entitled to protection as attorney work-product." Indian
Law Resources Ctr. v. Dept. of Interior, 477 F.Supp. 144, 148 (D.D.C. 1979). In Sharyland Water Supply
Corp. v. Block, 755 F.2d 397, 400 (5th Cir. 1985), the court refused to accept the argument that the FOIA
"created a lender-borrower privilege," despite the fact that such a privilege is referred to in the original
legislative history because this language had not been modified to reflect the addition of the words
"commercial or financial" to the exemption itself. Earlier, however, the court set forth a valuable definition
of the meaning of the word "privileged" within Exemption 4:
The FHA urges that the word "privileged" in subsection (b)(4) embraces only material shield by privilege recognized at common
law or created by statute. An absolutely literal interpretation would, however, defeat any privilege, for virtually any privilege is waived
by disclosure to a third party. To have any content, the statute must be read as referring to information that would have been
privileged but for the requirement that it be revealed to the government.
Id. at 399-400.
There is also a holding "that materials which are the subject of a protective order under Rule 26(c)(7) [Federal Rules of Civil Procedure] are not privileged for purposes of FOIA Exemption 4 because the determination of whether documents" are exempt from disclosure must be made solely by applying the language of the exemption itself. Anderson v. Dept. of Health & Human Services, 907 F.2d 936, 945 (10th Cir. 1990).
In United Technologies Corp. v. FAA, 102 F.3d 688 (2d Cir. 1996), the Plaintiff was seeking design drawings for replacement parts to an aircraft engine it manufactured, which other companies had submitted to obtain a Parts Manufacture Approval so that they could manufacture and sell these replacement parts directly to owners of the engine. Plaintiff admitted "that it cannot prevail if it must proceed under Exemption 4 as if it were any other member of the general public." 102 F.3d at 691. It attempted to get around this concession by arguing that it already knew the design of the parts since one of the requirement for obtaining the Approval was that the parts be identical in design to those of the engine manufacturer, and that this fact created an analogous situation to that in which courts would not allow agencies to use Exemption 6 (or 7(C)) to withhold personal records from the subject. The court rejected this argument, stating that the only justifiable extension of this principle would be a general rule that agencies could not use an exemption to withhold records from a requester whom the exemption was designed to protect.
There has been extremely little litigation over the question of whether information is "commercial or financial." In the American Airlines case cited above, however, the court did rule that the number of authorization cards submitted by a union in support of a certification petition met this criterion. "`Commercial' surely means pertaining or relating to or dealing with commerce. Labor unions, and their representation of employees, quite obviously pertain to or are related to commerce and deal with the commercial life of the country." 588 F.2d at 870. See also Van Bourg, Allen, Weinberg & Roger v. NLRB, 728 F.2d 1270 (9th Cir. 1984).
There are two final points to remember about Exemption 4. The first is that the age of the information is
always a factor; i.e., the fact that its release would be likely to cause substantial competitive harm when it
is one year old does not guarantee it will be withholdable several years later. The second point is that
information, no matter how detailed, is not confidential under Exemption 4 if released in an anonymous form.
"Reverse FOIA" Cases
As will be explained below, the term "reverse FOIA" case is technically an incorrect one. It is firmly entrenched, however, in the jargon of this area of the law and is still widely used to refer to a suit where the plaintiff is seeking to enjoin an agency from disclosing records -- a result which is the reverse of the normal FOIA suit. This discussion was placed immediately after that of Exemption 4 since this exemption is the one involved in virtually every reverse FOIA case. An analysis of 18 U.S.C. §1905 is also included, since that statute, Exemption 3, and reverse FOIA cases are now hopelessly intertwined.
The FOIA itself contains no provision for suits to block release, and one early question, therefore, was whether district courts even had jurisdiction to hear such cases. All courts presented with this question found that they did have jurisdiction, but the theories used varied greatly. This and other questions presented by early reverse FOIA cases are of academic interest only, however, as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Chrysler Corp. v. Brown, 441 U.S. 281 (1979). We will note for historical purposes that the first reported reverse FOIA case was Charles River Park "A," Inc. v. HUD, 360 F.Supp. 212 (D.D.C. 1973) (almost six years after the FOIA's effective date), and then proceed to a brief discussion of 18 U.S.C. §1905, followed by an analysis of what the Court did and did not hold in Chrysler.
The text of 18 U.S.C. §1905 is:
Whoever, being an officer or employee of the United States or of any department or agency thereof, or agent of the Department
of Justice as defined by the Antitrust Civil Process Act (15 U.S.C. §§1311-1314), publishes, divulges, discloses, or makes known
in any manner or to any extent not authorized by law any information coming to him in the course of his employment or official duties
or by reason of any examination or investigation made by, or return, report or record made to or filed with, such department or
agency or officer or employee thereof, which information concerns or relates to the trade secrets, processes, operations, style of
work, or apparatus, or to the identity, confidential statistical data, amount or source of any income, profits, losses, or expenditures
of any person, firm, partnership, corporation, or association; or permits any income return or copy thereof or any book containing
any abstract or particulars thereof to be seen or examined by any person except as provided by law; shall be fined not more than
$1,000 or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and shall be removed from office or employment.
Its roots date all the way back to a statute passed in 1864 which applied only to information in the possession of tax officials. The sanctions in that original statute were the same as they are today. There is virtually no authoritative legislative history as to the exact nature of the disclosures Congress was seeking to prevent, and prior to Chrysler it was generally agreed that §1905 applied only to unauthorized disclosure (i.e., that it did not apply to disclosures which resulted from official agency action).
The two principal questions about §1905 which are of concern in this context are: (1) whether it is an Exemption 3 statute; and (2) the definition of its scope relative to that of Exemption 4. Some have also asserted that §1905 constituted a jurisdictional basis for reverse FOIA cases.
Before turning to Chrysler it is necessary to understand some of the other problems presented by reverse FOIA cases, and the unfortunate posture in which that particular case reached the Supreme Court. All agreed that for a plaintiff to prevail in a reverse FOIA case the records had to be exempt; if they were not, the FOIA itself required release. if the records were exempt, however, the question arose as to whether the agency could release them anyway (i.e., as an exercise of discretion). Thus, depending on the agency's position, a reverse FOIA plaintiff would have to establish both that the records were exempt and that release would be an abuse of discretion, or he might have to convince a court of only one (which one will vary) of these points.
There were, and still are, disagreements over both who should bear the burden of proof and the standard of review (i.e., de novo or arbitrary and capricious) on each of these issues. These arguments are highly significant for the plaintiff has a much harder task when he has to establish that the agency's decision is arbitrary and capricious. It should also be noted that some argued that the FOIA exemptions required withholding rather than permitting it.
The general state of the law prior to the Supreme Court's decision in Chrysler was typified by the court of appeals decision in that case. Chrysler Corporation v. Schlesinger, 565 F.2d 1172 (3rd Cir. 1977). The court held:
1. the FOIA exemptions do not require the withholding of any records;
2. 18 U.S.C. §1905 is not an Exemption 3 statute; and
3. regulations promulgated under authority of 5 U.S.C. §301 (a general records housekeeping statute), and providing for the discretionary release of records which could be withheld under the FOIA, satisfy §1905's authorized by law proviso.
The unfortunate point about the court of appeals' decision was that it reached no determination about whether the records were covered by either Exemption 4 or §1905. It saw no need to do so in light of its holding that even if they were covered by either, or by both, a discretionary release under the applicable agency regulations was permissible as a general principle and would not constitute an abuse of discretion. Consequently, the Supreme Court was presented with an assumption that the records were exempt and asked to decide whether release would constitute an abuse of discretion. It held that it might, thereby reversing the holding that it would not, and remanded for further consideration. In doing so, however, if decided many issues relating to reverse FOIA cases, while leaving other ones undecided.
The Court held that the FOIA exemptions permitted rather than required withholding. It also held that neither the FOIA or §1905 created a private right of action to enjoin any agency from releasing records (thus the term "reverse FOIA case is technically incorrect). The Court then dropped a bombshell, however, by holding that §1905 did apply to official agency decisions to release records, and that a plaintiff could get judicial review of these decisions under the Administrative Procedure Act by contending that some other statute (e.g., §1905) barred the release, making it unlawful under 5 U.S.C. §706(2)(A).
With regard to the standard of review to be used the Court said merely that "de novo review by the District Court is ordinarily not necessary to decide whether a contemplated decision runs afoul of Section 1905." 441 U.S. at 318. This issue is therefore still a hotly contested one.
The D.C. Circuit has ruled that de novo review of an agency's determination as to whether the records are exempt is not appropriate in a reverse FOIA context (i.e., review should be on the administrative record). NOW, Washington D.C. Chapter v. Social Sec. Admin., 736 F.2d 727 (D.C. Cir. 1984). The court went even further in Sharyland Water Supply Corp. v. Block, 755 F.2d 397, 399 (5th Cir. 1985), ruling expressly that the agency's findings of no substantial harm "must be accepted by us unless they are clearly erroneous."
Another court put a slightly different slant on this issue. it held that 5 U.S.C. §706(2)(A) required de novo review only when (1) the agency decision to release is adjudicatory in nature, and (2) its fact-finding procedures are inadequate. Unless both of those conditions are satisfied, the plaintiff in a reverse FOIA suit is entitled only to a review on an arbitrary and capricious standard. Pacific Architects & Eng. v. Dept. of State, 906 F.2d 1345 (9th Cir. 1990).
The Eighth Circuit has joined those holding that the proper standard of review in a reverse FOIA case is whether the agency's action is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." Daisy Mfg. Co. v. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 133 F.3d 1081 (8th Cir. 1998).
The Court in Chrysler declined to decide either of the principal issues involving §1905 listed above (i.e., whether it is an Exemption 3 statute and its scope relative to that of Exemption 4). It did, however, deal at length with the question of whether a release in accordance with agency regulations could be "authorized by law" within the meaning of §1905 and thus not violative of its restriction on release. In the most confusing part of its opinion the Court held that agency regulations could satisfy this requirement, but only when there was a sufficient "nexus" between their provisions for release and the legislative grant of authority under which they were promulgated. This standard is now commonly referred to as the nexus test. In Chrysler the Court held that this test had not been satisfied (ruling 5 U.S.C. §301 did not provide a sufficient nexus for discretionary release regulations). It also rejected the agency's reliance on both Section 201 of E.O. 11246 (and its statutory bases) and the FOIA itself.
In explaining the nexus test the Court stated that it was
clear that when it enacted these statutes [i.e., the bases of E.O. 11246], Congress was not concerned with public disclosure of
trade secrets or confidential business information, and, unless we were to hold that any federal statute that implies some authority
to collect information must grant legislative authority to disclose that information to the public, it is simply not possible to find in these
statutes a delegation of the disclosure authority asserted by the respondents here. . .This is not to say that any grant of legislative
authority to a federal agency by Congress must be specific before regulations promulgated pursuant to them can be binding on
courts in a manner akin to statutes. What is important is that the reviewing court reasonably be able to conclude that the grant of
authority contemplates the regulations issued.
441 U.S. at 306, 308.
As might be expected, there has been considerable disagreement over the definition of the nexus test. The major issue is whether it can be satisfied by an argument that the disclosure provided for is "necessary and proper" to the carrying out of the functions assigned in a legislative grant of authority. The affirmative of this argument appears to be supported by a series of decisions holding that there is a sufficient nexus between a grant of authority in 42 U.S.C. §1306(a) and disclosure regulations promulgated by HHS. Humana of Virginia v. Blue Cross of Virginia, 622 F.2d 76 (4th Cir. 1980); Parkridge Hospital, Inc. v. Califano, 625 F.2d 719 (6th Cir. 1980); St. Mary's Hosp. v. Harris, 604 F.2d 407 (5th Cir. 1979); St. Joseph's Hosp. v. Blue Cross, 614 F.2d 1290 (2d Cir. 1979).
It cannot be overemphasized that in Chrysler the Supreme Court was not asked to rule on whether the records were covered by Exemption 4 and therefore did not discuss the scope of this exemption at all. It also chose not to rule on whether they were covered by §1905 and, as discussed above, did "not attempt to determine the relative ambits of Exemption 4 and §1905, or to determine whether §1905 is an exempting statute within the terms of the amended Exemption 3. . ." 441 U.S. at 319, n.49.
In this footnote, however, the Court implied that Exemption 4 and §1905 were identical in scope. This view is supported by a substantial body of pre-Chrysler case law. After Chrysler, the government consistently maintained that §1905 is narrower in scope than Exemption 4 while plaintiffs argued that it is broader. In General Elec. Co. v. NRC, 750 F.2d 1394 (7th Cir. 1984), the court held that §1905 affords no protection beyond that of Exemption 4.
There was also a clear pre-Chrysler majority view that §1905 is not an Exemption 3 statute. In an appellate decision on this subject, the Fourth Circuit reversed two district court decisions that §1905 was an Exemption 3 statute but did not reach a decision itself. It did, however, reaffirm its view that §1905 and Exemption 3 are co-extensive. General Motors v. Marshall, 654 F.2d 294 (4th Cir. 1981).
In 1987 the D.C. Circuit issued a comprehensive opinion holding that (1) §1905 was not an Exemption 3 statute, and (2) its scope is co-extensive with that of Exemption 4. CNA Financial Corp. v. Donovan, 830 F.2d 1132 (D.C. Cir. 1987).
Earlier, President Reagan had satisfied one of the submitters' biggest concerns by issuing an executive order requiring agencies to establish procedures for notifying them if it planned to release information they had submitted, and for giving them an opportunity to object to disclosure. E.O. 12600 (52 Fed. Reg. 23781, June 25, 1987).
AT&T Information Systems v. GSA, 810 F.2d 1233 (D.C. Cir. 1987), involved an agency decision to release pricing data from a successful bid despite AT&T's objections. All parties agreed that there was not basis for GSA's decision in the stipulated administrative record. The district court had reached its decision in favor of the agency on the basis of a supplemental declaration. The court of appeals reversed, holding that the trial court's review, although de novo, must be limited to the administrative record. It therefore remanded "with directions to remand to GSA for development of its reasons for deciding not to withhold." 810 F.2d at 1236.
Occidental Petroleum Corp. v. SEC, 873 F.2d 325 (D.C. Cir. 1989), illustrates some of the difficulties which can arise over the adequacy of an administrative record. The district court (662 F.Supp. 496 (D.D.C. 1987)) had remanded for further proceedings on the ground that the record was inadequate for judicial review under 5 U.S.C. §706(2). The SEC appealed, arguing "that the district court impermissibly required it, on remand, to follow specified procedures beyond those required by law, contrary to Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 435 U.S. 19 (1978)." 873 F.2d at 328.
The court of appeals rejected this argument and affirmed the holding, which places substantial burdens on an agency wishing to release commercial/financial records over the objections of the submitter:
1. The agency bears the "burden of production" with regard to a claim that the information in question is publicly available. The court's rationale was that the party making such a claim "is in the best position to point to the public sources and to identify the allegedly confidential information set forth therein." 873 F.2d at 344.
2. District courts can require agencies to produce document-by-document justification (i.e., a "reverse" Vaughn index) of a decision to release.
One final point to note is that after the Chrysler decision a new section, 9-2.025, was added to the United
States Attorneys Manual. It states that "it is the policy of the Criminal Division not to prosecute government
employees for a violation of 18 U.S.C. §1905 if the release of information in question were made in a good
faith effort to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and the applicable regulations." The section also
directs U.S. Attorneys not to institute a prosecution under §1905 before consulting with the Public Integrity
Section of the Criminal Division.
Exemption 5. . . .inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law
to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.
At the time of its enactment this exemption's purpose was described as being to prevent the harm that
would be done to agency deliberations on important legal and policy matters if it were "forced to `operate
in a fishbowl.'" Source Book I at 44. It was clearly intended to incorporate the traditional governmental
evidentiary privilege known as the deliberative process privilege (or, alternatively, executive privilege). The
exemption has proven to be a fluid one, however, and now also includes: (1) the attorney work-product
privilege; (2) the attorney-client privilege (at least partially); and (3) certain qualified privileges under Rule
26 Fed.R.Civ.P. Each of these privileges will be discussed in turn.
Deliberative Process Privilege
As noted above, incorporating this privilege into the FOIA was Congress' primary goal in enacting Exemption 5, and it is still involved in a large majority of Exemption 5 cases. Its main purpose was described by the Supreme Court as being "to insure that a decision maker will receive the unimpeded advice of his associates. The theory is that if advice is revealed, associates may be reluctant to be candid and frank." Federal Open Market Committee v. Merrill, 443 U.S. 340, 359-60 (1979).
The Supreme Court has considered this privilege on four other occasions. Dept. of Justice v. Julian, 486 U.S. 1 (1988); NLRB v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 421 U.S. 132 (1975); Renegotiation Board v. Grumman Aircraft, 421 U.S. 168 (1975); and EPA v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73 (1973).
In Mink the Court confirmed the already generally recognized principle that reasonably segregable factual portions of records otherwise protected by the privilege had to be released; i.e., that the materials withheld must be deliberative rather than factual. There is an exception to this rule when the selection of factual data is an integral part of the deliberative process. Montrose Chemical Corp. v. Train, 491 F.2d 63 (D.C. Cir. 1974). This exception has proven to be a relatively narrow one. In Playboy Enterprises v. Dept. of Justice, 677 F.2d 931 (D.C. Cir. 1982), the court rejected an argument that the factual portions of a report were exempt solely because they represented the selection by the author. "Anyone making a report must of necessity select the facts to be mentioned in it; but a report does not become a part of the deliberative process merely because it contains only those facts which the person making the report thinks are material." 677 F.2d at 935.
This issue has continued to receive considerable attention. In ITT World Communications, Inc. v. FCC 699 F.2d 1219 (D.C. Cir. 1983), the court reaffirmed its holding in Playboy and added that, to withhold factual summaries as deliberative, an agency must show that they were "prepared for the sole purpose of evaluating the relative factual merits of different positions in pending proceedings. . .It is not enough for an agency to assert that factual material `may be used' in future deliberations; the agency must demonstrate that the material at issue is inextricably intertwined with a specific deliberative proceeding." 699 F.2d at 1239.
The court discussed this exception again in Paisley v. CIA, 712 F.2d 686 (D.C. Cir. 1983), and indicated that it "cannot be read so broadly as to undermine the basic rules; in most situations, factual summaries prepared for information purposes will not reveal deliberative processes and hence should be disclosed." 712 F.2d at 699.
1987 saw two more possibly contradictory D.C. Circuit considerations of this question. In Wolfe v. Dept. of Health and Human Service, 815 F.2d 1527 (D.C. Cir. 1987), the court, after a lengthy discussion, held that the FDA's "Regulations Log" was essentially a factual description of any given regulation's status, and thus not protected by Exemption 5. In doing so, it rejected the government's argument that it "abandon the fact/opinion distinction and instead ask whether disclosure would `disrupt' the decisionmaking process even if it did not reveal the substance of the predecisional recommendations." 815 F.2d at 1533.
Only a few days later, however, a different panel affirmed the withholding of a draft history of Air Force
operations in Vietnam, despite concluding that it was essentially factual.
Courts soon came to realize, however, that use of the factual matter/deliberative matter distinction produced incorrect outcomes
in a small number of cases. . .Congress enacted Exemption 5 to protect the executive's deliberative processes -- not to protect
specific materials. . .Release of Sunderland's manuscript would disclose the alterations that the Air Force in its entirety, made
during the process of compiling the history.
Dudman Communications v. Dept. of Air Force, 815 F.2d 1565, 1568-69 (D.C. Cir. 1987).
In possible response to this apparent conflict, the court granted the government's petition for rehearing en banc in Wolfe and reversed the panel decision. It ruled in Wolfe v. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 768 (D.C. Cir. 1988), that records indicating what actions had been completed by FDA but were still awaiting a decision by the Secretary were protected by the deliberative process privilege. It said that disclosure would reveal "that proposals have been made and that these preliminary recommendations have been accepted or rejected, at various levels of review. Disclosure of the information requested in this case would certainly reveal policies prematurely." 839 F.2d at 774-75. The result would be an interference with the deliberative process by allowing private parties to protest what they considered unreasonable delays (i.e., would force operations in a fishbowl).
The D.C. Circuit revisited this issue several years later in Petroleum Information Corp. v. Dept. of Interior,
976 F.2d 1429 (1992):
These decisions, which caution against reflexive fact/opinion characterizations as they way to decide the full range of Exemption
5 cases, sound a common theme: To fall within the deliberative process privilege, material must bear on the formulation or exercise
of agency policy oriented judgment. . .To the extent that predecisional materials, even if "factual" in form, reflect an agency's
preliminary positions or ruminations about how to exercise discretion on some policy matter, they are protected under Exemption
5. Conversely, when materials could reasonably be said to reveal an agency's or official's mode of formulating or exercising policy-implicating judgment, the deliberative process privilege is inapplicable.
976 F.2d at 1429.
The Ninth Circuit views the fact/opinion issue as a functional one to be determined by whether or not disclosure would expose an agency's deliberative processes. Assembly of State of Cal. v. Dept. of Commerce, 968 F.2d 916 (9th Cir. 1992). In the same vein, the Eleventh Circuit stated in dicta that "with documents this short [one and a half pages] it is likely that disclosure of the factual material would also reveal the agency's deliberative process." Nadler v. Dept. of Justice, 955 F.2d 1479, 1491 (11th Cir. 1992). In National Wildlife Federation v. U.S. Forest Service, 861 F.2d 1114 (9th Cir. 1988), the plaintiff sought draft forest plans and environmental impact statements. It countered the government's claim of deliberative process privilege by arguing that to come within this privilege records must "not only be predecisional and deliberative, but [must] also contain non-binding and advisory recommendations regarding law or policy; opinions or recommendations regarding facts or consequences of facts [are] not. . .exempt." 861 F.2d 1117. The court rejected this argument, holding that since the privilege includes all records whose disclosure would reveal the mental processes of decisionmakers, it protects records containing statements "which identify and assign priority to the issues deemed relevant to the formulation of policy." Id. at 1121.
Sears, however, remains today the most important decision concerning the deliberative process privilege. The Court began its analysis with a statement that "the ultimate purpose of this long-recognized privilege is to prevent injury to the quality of agency decisions." 421 U.S. at 151. It then held that, while this purpose justified the withholding of predecisional deliberative materials, it supplied no grounds for withholding the final decision itself or post-decisional analyses or explanations of the decision. In Paisley v. CIA, supra, 712 F.2d at 698, the court set forth the following test for determining whether or not documents are predecisional: "To ascertain whether the documents at issue are predecisional, the court must first be able to pinpoint an agency decision or policy to which these documents contributed. The agency bears the burden of establishing the character of the decision, the deliberative process involved, and the role played by the documents in the course of that process." Documents still meet this test, however, despite being post-decisional in one process, if they are predecisional in another. City of Virginia Beach v. Dept. of Commerce, 995 F.2d 1247 (4th Cir. 1993).
An interesting variation of these questions was presented in Environmental Defense Fund v. OMB, 742 F.2d 1484 (D.C. Cir. 1984). The records at issue were ones submitted by EPA to OMB concerning EPA's budget recommendations. The district court had ruled that these records constituted EPA's final decision and were therefore not predecisional. The court of appeals reversed, holding that the records did not constitute a final decision for purposes of the FOIA, but rather "a decision to make a particular recommendation to another agency of the government that has ultimate responsibility for developing the President's budget proposals." Id. at 1497. Thus the records were predecisional and therefore exempt.
In Access Reports v. Dept. of Justice, 926 F.2d 1192 (D.C. Cir. 1991), the plaintiff had requested a memorandum written by a DOJ attorney and containing an analysis of proposed amendments to the FOIA. The district court had ruled that the government could not withhold the document under the deliberative process privilege because the attorney had prepared it "after the Department's decision to introduce the amendments, and because the Department could not `pinpoint' a later decision to which the document contributed. . ." 926 F.2d at 1193.
The court of appeals reversed, holding that the government's inability to tie the record to a particular
decisionmaking process was
not fatal to [its] claim of privilege. . .Two of our earlier cases [Paisley and Senate of Puerto Rico] have indeed used that metaphor,
but in context the language cannot be taken to require that the document contribute to a single discrete decision . . .Any
requirement of a specific decision after the creation of a document would defeat the purpose of the exemption. At the time of writing
the author could not know whether the decisionmaking process would lead to a clear decision, establishing the process, or fizzle,
defeating it. Hedging his bets, he would be drawn into precisely the caution, or Aesopian language that the exemption seeks to
926 F.2d at 1994, 1196.
But see, Maricopa Audubon Society v. U.S. Forest Service, 108 F.3d 1089 (9th Cir. 1997), where the court rejected "the government's primary argument that a continuing process of agency self-evaluation is enough to render a document `predecisional' and hold, instead, that the agency must identify a specific decision to which the document is predecisional." Although the court did not address the issue, it presumably would not require that the agency actually have made a decision, but only that there had been a specific decision under consideration at the time of the document's creation.
In Safecard Services, Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197 (D.C. Cir. 1991), the court held that "surely any portion of the minutes recounting the Commissioner's explanation of why he or she voted in a particular way could not be predecisional, any more than would that Commissioner's separate written opinion, accompanying the final order."
Disputes also arise as to whether specific documents are decisional. In Schlefer v. United States, 702 F.2d 233, 237 (D.C. Cir. 1983), the court described the test as being: "first, do the documents serve as `law' in the specific case to which they are addressed, second, do they serve as `law'-like precedent in subsequent cases." The court also indicated that "decisional documents. . .do not become `deliberative' merely because some high agency official retains formal authority, deferentially or infrequently exercised, to overturn the decision." Id. at 238-39 n.11.
In a final note the court stated that memoranda sent up the chain of command were more likely to be deliberative than ones sent by a superior to a subordinate.
The court muddied the waters somewhat in ITT World Communications, supra, 699 F.2d at 1237-38 when it indicated that predecisional deliberative records reflecting "positions actually taken" might have to be disclosed if "the actual policy or legal positions adopted" were not otherwise disclosed to the public.
In Tax Analysts v. IRS, 117 F.3d 607 (D.C. Cir. 1997), the court held that "[t]he government's opinion about what is not the law and why it is not the law is as much a statement of government policy as its opinion about what the law is."
In an extremely important holding the Sears Court followed a line of lower court decisions to rule that "if an agency chooses expressly to adopt or incorporate by reference an intra-agency memorandum previously covered by Exemption 5 in what would otherwise be a final opinion, that memorandum. . .can no longer be withheld under Exemption 5 ." 421 U.S. at 161.
This principle was stated in somewhat broader (at least arguably) terms by the D.C. Circuit: "Even if the document is predecisional, at the time it is adopted, formally or informally, as the agency position on an issue or is used by the agency in its dealings with the public" (emphasis added), it loses its predecisional status. Coastal States Gas Corp. v. Dept. of Energy, 617 F.2d 854, 866 (D.C. Cir. 1980). It does not appear, however, that any court has yet held that a document has lost its Exemption 5 status because of "informal" adoption by an agency, and subsequent decisions indicate that it may have been merely loose language. A few months later the same court of appeals ruled that a document does not move outside Exemption 5 merely because the decisionmaker uses it as a part of the basis for his decision. Brinton v. Dept. of State, 636 F.2d 600 (D.C. Cir. 1980). The current rule is clearly contra to any adoption theory. Providence Journal Co. v. Dept. of Army, 981 F.2d 552 (1st Cir. 1992).
Subsequently the court rejected the argument that all memoranda which support the decision reached constitute the basis for the agency decision and therefore lose their Exemption 5 status. Common Cause v. IRS, 646 F.2d 656 (D.C. Cir. 1981). It strengthened this holding in Afshar v. Dept. of State, 702 F.2d 1125 (D.C. Cir. 1983), but also held that the adoption principle was not limited to final decisions concerning an agency's "working law."
A reference only to a report's conclusion does not, however, necessarily constitute adoption of its reasoning. Access Reports v. Dept. of Justice, 926 F.2d 1192, 1197 (D.C. Cir. 1991). Such adoption almost certainly must be express to result in a document's losing its status under the deliberative process privilege.
Obviously records generated after the agency has made a decision cannot be predecisional, but not all records generated before that time are predecisional for purposes of the deliberative process privilege. "Material which predates a decision chronologically, but did not contribute to that decision, is not predecisional in any meaningful way." Assembly of State of Cal. v. Dept. of Commerce, 968 F.2d 916, 921 (9th Cir. 1992).
Coastal States also contains an excellent discussion of the deliberative process privilege generally and of the tests to determine whether a document is properly within its scope. 617 F.2d at 866. Included within this discussion is a reference to "drafts" as examples of predecisional documents which are generally protected by the deliberative process privilege. See also King v. IRS, 684 F.2d 517 (7th Cir. 1982). This protection is not automatic, however, and the agency must show that the draft is truly deliberative in nature. Arthur Andersen & Co. v. IRS, 679 F.2d 254 (D.C. Cir. 1982).
There was a split over the issue of whether presentence reports are within the deliberative process privilege. Durns v. Bureau of Prisons, 804 F.2d 701 (D.C. Cir. 1986) (privilege encompasses reports); Julian v. Dept of Justice, 806 F.2d 1411 (9th Cir. 1986) (privilege does not encompass the reports). This split was decided by the Supreme Court in 1988. It held that they were not. Dept. of Justice v. Julian, 486 U.S. 1 (1988).
For an example of a court striking down an agency's claim of this privilege as being too conclusory, see
Senate of Puerto Rico v. Dept. of Justice, 823 F.2d 574 (D.C. Cir. 1987).
This privilege was formally recognized as being included within Exemption 5 by the Supreme Court in Sears: "Whatever the outer boundaries of the attorneys' work-product rule are, the rule clearly applies to memoranda prepared by an attorney in contemplation of litigation which set forth the attorney's theory of the case and his litigation strategy." 421 U.S. at 154.
Subsequent decisions have made it even clearer that this privilege's protection is "limited to documents prepared in [reasonable] contemplation of litigation. . .[for] if an agency were entitled to withhold any document prepared by any person in the Government with a law degree simply because litigation might someday occur, the policies of the FOIA would be largely defeated." Coastal States, supra, 617 F.2d at 864-65. In that case the court held the privilege inapplicable because there was no indication of "even the dimmest expectation of litigation. . . ." Id. It rejected the argument that the fact that any audit could result in litigation was sufficient justification for invoking the privilege. See Chilvis v. SEC, 673 F.2d 1205, 1211 (11th Cir. 1982), for an excellent analysis of the privilege.
Such an investigation would have to be, and typically would be, based upon suspicion of specific wrongdoing and represent an attempt to garner evidence and to build a case against the specific wrongdoer.
In a somewhat surprising decision, the D.C. Circuit held that this privilege was no longer applicable when the litigation for which the records were prepared (and any related cases) is completed. Grolier, Inc. v. FTC, 671 F.2d 553 (D.C. Cir. 1982). The Supreme Court reversed this decision, so "attorney work-product is exempt from mandatory disclosure without regard to the status of the litigation for which it was prepared." FTC v. Grolier, 462 U.S. 19 (1983). However, as a result of a change in FOIA policy under the Clinton administration, the Department of Justice's Office of Information and Privacy has encouraged agencies to release such attorney work product material at the conclusion of any litigation to which it pertains.
It also does not end because an attorney has recommended against initiating any litigation. "The reports and recommended action with respect to the status of an investigation submitted before any final decision is made as to the course of an investigation qualify as documents prepared in anticipation of litigation." A. Michael's Piano, Inc. v. FTC, 18 F.3d 138, 146-47 (2d Cir. 1994).
In Safecard Services, Inc. v SEC, 926 F.2d 1197 (D.C. Cir. 1991), the court held that a law enforcement agency must satisfy the "reasonable contemplation of litigation" requirement "by demonstrating that one of its lawyers prepared a document in the course of an investigation that was undertaken with litigation in mind. . . ." 926 F.2d at 1202.
The court qualified this ruling by stating that it was not holding "that every document prepared [by an attorney] during an investigation is necessarily prepared in anticipation of litigation." 926 F.2d at 1203. It did not, however, give any examples of documents which would not qualify. See Schiller v. NLRB, 964 F.2d 1205 (D.C. Cir. 1992).
After some uncertainty, it now seems clear that the privilege does include factual portions. A. Michael's Piano, Inc. v. FTC, 18 F.3d 138 (2d Cir. 1994); Norwood v. FAA, 993 F.2d 570 (6th Cir. 1993); Martin v. Office of Special Counsel, MSPB, 819 F.2d 1181 (D.C. Cir. 1987). But see, Fine v. Dept. of Energy, 823 F.Supp. 888 (D.N.M. 1993).
It can also include internal memoranda in which attorneys
"advise the agency of the types of legal challenges likely to be
mounted against a proposed program, potential defense available to
the agency, and the likely outcome." Delaney, Migdail & Young,
Chartered v. IRS, 826 F.2d 124, 127 (D.C. Cir. 1987).
In 1977 the D.C. Circuit held that Exemption 5 includes the attorney-client privilege, but that, while this privilege is available to government agencies, it "does not allow the withholding of documents simply because they are the product of an attorney-client relationship. . . . It must also be demonstrated that the information [furnished by the client] is confidential. If the information has been or is later shared with third parties, the privilege does not apply." Mead Data v. Dept. of Air Force, 566 F.2d 242, 253 (D.C. Cir. 1977). Similarly, the privilege does not include information submitted by an outside third party rather than the client agency. Schlefer v. United States, 702 F.2d 233 (D.C. Cir. 1983).
In In re Lindsey, 148 F.3d 1100 (D.C. Cir. 1998), the court limited the governmental attorney-client privilege to situations in which agency executives seek legal advice from a professional legal adviser acting in that capacity. It also held that "[w]hen government attorneys learn, through communications with their clients, of information related to criminal misconduct, they may not rely on the government attorney-client privilege to shield such information for disclosure to a grand jury." 148 F.3d at 1114.
The purpose of this privilege is to encourage frankness by a client in communicating with his attorney; thus it protects communications from the attorney to the client only to the extent necessary to protect confidential information furnished by the client. See Brinton v. Dept. of State, 636 F.2d 600 (D.C. Cir. 1980).
It has also been held that confidentiality can be lost by circulation within an agency beyond those having a need-to-know, and that an agency must show that it took affirmative steps to restrict dissemination. Coastal States, supra, 617 F.2d at 863. The analysis in any given situation is a fact-specific one. U.S. v. Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer Dist. (MSD), 952 F.2d 1040 (8th Cir. 1992).
In a non-FOIA context, the Supreme Court held that the
attorney-client privilege survives the client's death. Swindler &
Berlin v. U.S., 524 U.S. ___, 118 S.Ct. 2081 (1998).
Rule 26(c)(7) Fed.R.Civ.P.
In Federal Open Market Committee, supra, the Supreme Court held
that while Exemption 5 did not include every civil discovery
privilege, it did include the qualified one in this rule providing
that "a trade secret of other confidential research, development,
or commercial information not be disclosed, or be disclosed in a
designated way." This privilege would, therefore, include
"confidential information generated [by a government agency] in the
process of awarding a contract" until the contract is awarded or
the offer withdrawn. 443 U.S. at 360. For application of this
privilege, see Government Land Bank v. GSA, 671 F.2d 663 (1st Cir.
1982); Hack v. Dept. of Energy, 538 F.Supp. 1098 (D.D.C. 1982).
Rule 26(b)(4) Fed.R.Civ.P.
Using the same rationale as the Supreme Court above, the Fifth Circuit held that Exemption 5 also incorporated the qualified privilege for records generated by an expert witness. Hoover v. Dept of Interior, 611 F.2d 1132 (5th Cir. 1980).
In Burka v. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 87 F.3d 508
(D.C. Cir. 1996), the court held that while Exemption 5
incorporates all generally recognized civil discovery privileges,
the test is not whether the agency can craft a set of hypothetical
facts under which a court might deny discovery. "We are inclined
to the view that to justify nondisclosure under Exemption 5, an
agency must show that the type of material it seeks to withhold is
generally protected in civil discovery for reasons similar to those
asserted by the agency in the FOIA context." 87 F.3d at 516.
There remain some general points to be made about Exemption 5. One relates to the effect of the requirement that records be intra- or inter-agency ones. It has been established that this language does not automatically exclude all records generated by non-agency personnel. For example, reports generated by outside consultants can be withheld if they satisfy Exemption 5's other requirements. Wu v. National Endowment for Humanities, 460 F.2d 1030 (5th Cir. 1972). This principle has been extended to appraisals prepared by independent fee appraisers. Hoover, supra.
In 1980 the D.C. Circuit gave an extremely broad reading to
The exemption was created to protect the deliberative process of the government by ensuring that persons in an advisory role would
be able to express their opinions freely to agency decisionmakers without fear of publicity. . .Congress apparently did not intend
"inter-agency" and "intra-agency" to be rigidly exclusive terms, but rather to include any agency document that is part of the
deliberative process. . .When an agency record is submitted by outside consultants as part of the deliberative process, and it was
solicited by the agency, we find it entirely reasonable to deem the resulting document to be an "intra-agency" memorandum for
purposes of determining the applicability of Exemption 5.
Ryan v. Dept. of Justice, 617 F.2d 781, 789-90 (D.C. Cir. 1980).
On the basis of this rationale the court held that various Senators' responses to a Justice Department request for recommendations (on nominees for federal judgeships) satisfied Exemption 5's threshold requirement.
In Klamath Water Users v. Dept. of the Interior, 189 F.3d 1034 (9th Cir. 1999), however, the court held that the rationale in Ryan does not apply when the outside party has a direct interest in the subject/issue on which the government is requesting his/her input, even if that input is both pre-decisional and deliberative.
In Dow Jones & Co. v. Dept. of Justice, 917 F.2d 571 (D.C. Cir. 1990), the court held that communications from Executive Branch agencies to Congress, and designed to aid the latter in its deliberations, do not satisfy the intra- or inter-agency requirement. This requirement is a flexible one, but it is limited to records which "are part and parcel of the agency's deliberative process." 917 F.2d at 575.
The record at issue in Dow Jones & Co., Inc. v. Dept. of Justice, 908 F.2d 1006 (D.C. Cir. 1990), was a letter from the Department to the House Ethics Committee describing a probe into possible wrongdoing by a Congressman. The Department had already declined prosecution, but successfully argued to the district court that Ryan established the principle that communications from the Executive Branch to Congress were inter-agency ones for purposes of Exemption 5. The court of appeals did not read Ryan so broadly, holding that the key to that decision was the fact that the questionnaires sent to Congress were returned to the Department for use in its deliberative processes. In this case the Department had ended its deliberative process -- whether or not to prosecute. "For that reason, we do not think that the Department's letter to the House Ethics Committee can be withheld under Exemption 5." 908 F.2d at 1010.
In County of Madison v. Dept. of Justice, 641 F.2d 1036 (1st Cir. 1981), however, the court declined to extend the Ryan rationale to settlement negotiations between the government and an outside party. It distinguished this case on the ground that in ones such as Wu and Ryan "the agency contacted non-payroll individuals to obtain information for the benefit of the agency . . .[while here] the Oneidas approached the government with their own interest in mind." 641 F.2d at 1040. The fact that the government also benefits from settlement negotiations was held not to be enough to satisfy the statutory language.
Similarly, in Van Bourg, Allen, Weinberg & Roger v. NLRB, 751 F.2d 982, 985 (9th Cir. 1985), the court ruled that "documents submitted to the NLRB by private parties in the course of an unfair labor practices investigation are not internal agency documents."
This area of the law remains a fluid one. In Formaldehyde Institute v. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 889 F.2d 1118 (D.C. Cir. 1989), the court considered a situation when employees of a private journal forwarded (to the agency) comments on an article submitted by the agency for possible publication. The court upheld withholding on the ground that these comments were clearly part of an agency deliberative process to determine "whether and in what form to publish the report in the name of the agency." 889 F.2d at 1124. The plaintiff tried to distinguish this case from earlier ones on the ground that the agency did not solicit the comments. The court responded that receipt of such reviews from the journal's staff was clearly an anticipated result of the agency's submission of an article, and that there was a mutual understanding or confidentiality between the agency and the journal which provides the reviews. "The existence of such an understanding is more than enough to hold that the Review Letter is part of the deliberative process of the agency." 889 F.2d at 1124.
Another court expressed the threshold test for Exemption 5 as a functional inquiry as to whether the agency has a particular need for outside information in its deliberative processes. If it does not, the non-governmental records are not intra-agency memoranda for purposes of Exemption 5. "We do not hold that a private party furnishing the government with information primarily for its own advantage can never meet this functional test, but here it is clear that Armstrong did not stand in any consultative or advisory role to the ICC that would justify withholding these documents from disclosure." State of Texas v. ICC, 889 F.2d 59, 62 (5th Cir. 1989).
Another point to be noted is that the analogy between Exemption 5 and discovery principles is not an exact one. Thus a requester's particularized need for the records, while relevant in a discovery context, is not a proper consideration under the FOIA. FTC v. Grolier, 462 U.S. 19 (1983); Swisher v. Dept. of Air Force, 660 F.2d 369 (8th Cir. 1981).
The D.C. Circuit expanded this reasoning to hold that presentence reports, although routinely available to their subjects, were protected by Exemption 5 because they were not routinely available to others during litigation. Durns v. Bureau of Prisons, 804 F.2d 701 (D.C. Cir. 1986). The Supreme Court overturned this reasoning, however, in Dept. of Justice v. Julian, 486 U.S. 1 (1988). It held that since the reports were routinely available to their subjects, Exemption 5 was not available as to that class of requesters despite the fact that the exemption could be asserted in third party requests.
In North v. Walsh, 881 F.2d 1088 (D.C. Cir. 1989), the court held that FOIA and discovery, while similar, were completely separate schemes, and that the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel could not be invoked to prohibit a plaintiff from requesting under FOIA access to information to which he had been denied access previously during criminal discovery.
Also, the fact that a document may have been successfully withheld in a discovery proceeding does not necessarily "mean that it will be exempt from a demand under FOIA." Playboy Enterprises, supra, 677 F.2d at 936. The court applied the same rationale in Weber Aircraft Corp. v. United States, 688 F.2d 638 (9th Cir. 1982), to hold that witness statements given in confidence during an Air Force air crash investigation were not exempt.
This result, but not the general principle, was reversed, however, by the Supreme Court in United States v. Weber Aircraft Corp., 465 U.S. 792 (1984). The Court ruled that a court-developed privilege for air crash witness statements was widely enough recognized to serve as a basis for withholding the records.
Finally, it should be noted that on May 5, 1977, Attorney General Bell sent a letter to all federal agencies
whose primary purpose was to discourage agencies from asserting Exemption 5 in situations where release
of the records would not involve a reasonable likelihood of actual harm to legitimate public or private
interests. This policy was terminated by Attorney General Smith in a letter dated May 4, 1981. Smith's
policy, however, has since been revoked by Attorney General Reno, and the basic principles laid out in the
Bell memo of 1977 have been reinstated as they apply to Exemption 5.
Exemption 6. . . .personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a
clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
The purpose of this exemption is to protect the personal privacy of the many natural persons about whom information can be found in records of federal agencies. Consequently, it overlaps somewhat with the Privacy Act. This relationship is discussed in the section on the interaction between the two acts.
The exemption's threshold requirement is that the information be contained in "personnel and medical files
and similar files." For years this requirement was regarded as a rather perfunctory one so that any personal
information whose disclosure would be harmful to the individual (i.e., a clearly unwarranted invasion of his
personal privacy) would qualify as a similar file. There was a period when the D.C. Circuit sought to impose
a restrictive reading, but the Supreme Court settled the issue in 1982, when it ruled that any item of personal
information which could be linked to an identifiable individual was a "similar file" for purposes of satisfying
Exemption 6's threshold test. Dept. of State v. Washington Post, 456 U.S. 595 (1982).
In Dobronski v. FCC, 17 F.3d 275 (9th Cir. 1994), the court rejected the argument that sick leave records were not "similar files."
It is generally agreed that once this threshold requirement is satisfied, the question of whether disclosure of the information will constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy is determined by balancing the seriousness of the resulting invasion (i.e., the degree of distress, embarrassment, harassment, physical injury, etc., likely to be caused by release) against the public interest which will be served by its disclosure. Under this test, even a relatively minor invasion of personal privacy would be clearly unwarranted if there is no public interest to be served by release. Wine Hobby, USA, Inc. v. IRS, 502 F.2d 133 (3rd Cir. 1974). Accord, Minnis v. Dept. of Agriculture, 737 F.2d 784 (9th Cir. 1984).
Arieff v. Dept. of Navy, 712 F.2d 1462 (D.C. Cir. 1983), provides some interesting insights into the various issues which can be presented in an Exemption 6 case. At issue were Navy Department inventory control records showing the names and amounts of prescription drugs supplied to the congressional medical office. The agency had argued that release would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the members of Congress' personal privacy. The district court accepted this argument despite the fact that the records contained no indication whatsoever of who received any of the drugs. The court of appeals reversed, holding that release would create "no more than a `mere possibility' that the medical condition of a particular individual might be disclosed." 712 F.2d at 1467. This "mere possibility" was held not to constitute any invasion of personal privacy at all, much less a clearly unwarranted one.
The court also held that "the mere speculation concerning individuals' medical conditions that release of the records would cause. . .[did not constitute] a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy. . .The text of Exemption 6 does not apply to an invasion of privacy produced as a secondary effect of the release." Id. at 1468. It clarified this portion of the opinion in a later decision by explaining that what it had meant was that Exemption 6 did not apply when there was only "mere speculation" that the information would be linked to a specific individual if released. National Association of Retired Fed. Emp. v. Horner, 879 F.2d 873, 878 (D.C. Cir. 1989).
The Supreme Court rendered virtually all previous case law concerning the Exemption 6 balancing analysis moot with its landmark decision in Dept. of Justice v. Reporters Committee, 489 U.S. 749 (1989). Prior to that decision there had been a strong difference of opinion as to whether the public interest in disclosure was to be measured by the intended use of the information by the particular requester, or by a more general standard which may have nothing to do with the particular requester's intended use. For years, the majority view had seemed to favor that of the requester. E.g., Getman v. NLRB, 450 F.2d 670 (D.C. Cir. 1971). But see Ditlow v. Shultz, 517 F.2d 166 (D.C. Cir. 1975). Focusing on the intended use of the particular requester certainly appears to be preferable from both the government's and the individual's standpoint, for it allows agencies the flexibility to determine, for example, that certain information has to be released to state tax authorities or scholars for specified purposes which are in the public interest but may still be withheld from requesters seeking it for purposes such as commercial solicitation or harassment.
In 1987, however, the D.C. Circuit had thoroughly muddied the water when, in an Exemption 7(C) context it held that the identity of the requester and his intended use of the requested information was irrelevant to the balancing analysis. Reporters Committee v. Dept. of Justice, 816 F.2d 730 (D.C. Cir. 1987). There was a vigorous dissent to this reasoning.
The Ninth Circuit, however, subsequently reaffirmed its position that both the requester's and the public's interest in disclosure are relevant considerations (together with the seriousness of the privacy invasion and the availability of alternative means of obtaining the information). Multnomah County Medical Soc. v. Scott, 825 F.2d 1410 (9th Cir. 1987). Accord, Minnis v. Dept. of Agriculture, 737 F.2d 784 (9th Cir. 1984).
The D.C. Circuit revisited Reporters Committee and confused matters even more with a highly
controversial definition of both the nature of the balancing test and of the type of public interest relevant to
[A] particular requester's purpose in seeking information, or his proposed use, must be wholly irrelevant to a determination of the
public interest . . .We do not believe that the phrase "public interest" as used in the balancing in Exemptions 6 and 7(C) of the
Act means anything more or less than the general disclosure policies of the statute.
Reporters Committee v. Dept. of Justice, 831 F.2d 1124, 1126 (D.C. Cir. 1988). Again, there was a vigorous dissent, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari, 485 U.S. 1005 (1988).
In one of the many significant holdings in Reporters Committee, the Court made it clear that with one exception, "the identity of the requesting party has no bearing on the merits of his or her FOIA request." 489 U.S. at 756. The one exception occurs when the requester is the subject of the requested records.
Technically this case involved only Exemption 7(C) but, as the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy and subsequent appellate decisions (discussed below) have made clear, the two personal privacy exemptions are so closely linked that a decision concerning one affects the other.
The Court began by weighing the privacy interest in the requested records (for if there is no protectible privacy interest, the records must be disclosed regardless of whether release would serve any public interest). It held that the fact that the record at issue here -- an FBI rap sheet -- contained only pieces of information which individually were matters of public record was not determinative. Applying a doctrine of "practical obscurity," it found that "there is a vast difference between the public records that might be found after a diligent search of courthouse files, county archives, and local police stations throughout the country and a computerized summary located in a single clearinghouse of information." 489 U.S. at 754. It stated that both the restrictions on the dissemination of rap sheet information in 28 U.S.C. §534(b) and the Privacy Act supported its conclusions that there was a strong privacy interest in rap sheet information.
Applying the conventional balancing test analysis, the Court then turned its inquiry to the question of whether disclosure would further a public interest that outweighed the privacy one. After ruling that the identity of the requester and his intended use of the information was irrelevant, the Court dropped its real bombshell: the only public interest which could be considered in FOIA privacy balancing was the shedding of "light on an agency's performance of its statutory duties." 489 U.S. at 756. Thus, if disclosure would not serve this extremely narrow definition of public interest, the records would be exempt under either Exemption 6 or 7(C) if there were even the slightest protectible privacy interest.
The Court concluded by holding that it was not necessary for agencies to consider a balancing analysis of the specific facts of each individual case. "Our cases provide support for the proposition that categorical decisions may be appropriate and individual circumstances disregarded when a case fits into a genus in which the balance characteristically tips in one direction." 489 U.S. at 758.
For a more comprehensive discussion of this landmark decision and its effect on agency responses to FOIA requests, see FOIA Update Spring 1989.
An appellate court defined the new balancing criteria in this way: "Because our focus must be upon whether disclosure serves the general public's interest in governmental affairs, the specific motives of the party making the FOIA request are irrelevant. If the general public has a legitimate, albeit abstract, interest in the requested information, disclosure must be made despite the fact that the party actually requesting and receiving the information may use it for less than lofty purposes." Halloran v. Veterans Administration, 874 F.2d 315, 323 (5th Cir. 1989). The court also recognized that the existence of a lofty purpose on the part of a requester will not compel release absent a legitimate interest by the general public. See Dept. of Defense v. FLRA, 510 U.S. 487, 114 S.Ct. 1006 (1994).
The D.C. Circuit soon made it clear that Reporters Committee applied to Exemption 6 as well as to Exemption 7(C), and that the decision would radically change existing practices. In National Association of Retired Fed. Emp. v. Horner, 879 F.2d 873 (D.C. Cir. 1989), the court reversed a district court decision (633 F.Supp. 1241) that the Office of Personnel Management had to release the names and addresses of retired and disabled employees to an organization which everyone agreed worked on behalf of these former employees, and which wished to solicit their membership. The district court had based its decision on holdings that the privacy invasion would be minimal, and that the public interest in helping this organization survive was strong. The court of appeals reversed, citing Reporters Committee for the proposition that "unless the public would learn something directly about the workings of the Government by knowing. . .[the contents of the records at issue], their disclosure is not affected with the public interest." 879 F.2d at 879.
Another type of records which shifted from the non-exempt (under the majority view) to the exempt after Reporters Committee is the names and addresses of agency employees when requested by a federal employees' labor union. Not only had most appellate courts held that the FOIA required release, but also the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) had ordered various federal agencies to honor such requests. In FLRA v. Dept. of Treasury, 884 F.2d 1446 (D.C. Cir. 1989), however, the court denied FLRA's application for enforcement of these orders on the grounds that (1) the FOIA did not require disclosure and (2) the Privacy Act did not authorize it.
The court recognized that a majority of the courts of appeals that had considered this question had ruled that "the special public interest in advancing collective bargaining" outweighs the limited privacy employees have in shielding their names and addresses from a union. 884 F.2d at 1451. Under Reporters Committee, the court continued, this category of public interest is no longer cognizable, despite the fact that the Federal Labor Management Relations Act clearly establishes a public interest in the disclosure of these names and addresses to labor unions for collective bargaining purposes.
In a concurring opinion. Judge Ginsburg expressed her concern at this result, noting that in most cases no showing of public interest is required to trigger mandatory disclosure under the FOIA. "Yet, once a privacy interest, however modest, is implicated the Act [after Reporters Committee] forbids disclosure of information that advances a significant public interest (here, the interest in informed collective bargaining), if that interest is unrelated to FOIA's `core purpose.'" 884 F.2d at 1459.
As indicated, a majority of the courts of appeal which have considered this issue have followed this restrictive interpretation of the kinds of public interest considerations which agencies can legitimately consider. See, e.g., FLRA v. Dept. of Navy, 941 F.2d 49 (1st Cir. 1991) (union seeking employees' names and home addresses); Hopkins v. Dept. of HUD, 929 F.2d 81 (2d Cir. 1991) (union seeking certified payroll records of contractors involved with a HUD-assisted public housing project); and Reed v. NLRB, 927 F.2d 1249 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (private individual seeking lists of names and home addresses of employees eligible to vote in representation elections).
For a contra view, however, see, FLRA v. Dept. of Defense, 975 F.2d 1105 (5th Cir. 1992); FLRA v. Dept. of Navy, 966 F.2d 747 (3rd Cir. 1992); FLRA v. Dept. of Navy, 958 F.2d 1490 (9th Cir. 1992); and FLRA v. Dept. of Commerce, 954 F.2d 994 (4th Cir. 1992). These courts held that, despite the Supreme Court's decision in Reporters Committee, it was still proper for agencies (1) to consider the congressional expressions of public interest in the furthering of collective bargaining found in 5 U.S.C. §7101(a)(1)(A), (B), and (2); and (2) to treat exclusive bargaining representatives differently from other requesters in this limited circumstance.
On the latter point, the Ninth Circuit stated that the argument that the Reporters Committee decision prohibited such a differentiation "confuses the identity of the requester with the interest asserted by the requester." 958 F.2d at 1495. Thus, according to the court's reasoning, release of employees' home addresses to their bargaining unit would not mean that the agency would have to release them to merchandisers as well for "the direct-mail merchandisers cannot assert the same interest as the labor union." Id.
It limited the Supreme Court's narrow definition of public interest in Reporters Committee to situations where one private individual is seeking information about another private individual. In this case a union was seeking information under a statute which "has declared the public interest in favor of collective bargaining in unmistakable terms. We doubt that Congress intended that the statement of public interest in [5 U.S.C. §]7101(a)(1) be ignored when examining the public interest element incorporated into [5 U.S.C. §]7114(b)(4) through FOIA." 958 F.2d at 1496.
As a result of this split among the Circuits, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the Fifth Circuit decision cited above. In the resulting opinion the Court left no doubt that the definition of public interest in Reporters Committee was "the only relevant public interest in the FOIA balancing analysis." Dept. of Defense v. FLRA, 510 U.S. 487, 114 S.Ct. 1006, 1013 (1994).
Two 1996 decisions illustrate the practical difficulties courts face in trying to adhere to this rigid standard. In Oregon Natural Desert Association v. Bibles, 83 F.3d 1168 (9th Cir. 1996), the court recognized that under the controlling Supreme Court precedents discussed above it could no longer consider a requester's particular interest in disclosure on the public interest side of the personal privacy balancing analysis. It achieved the same result by shifting that interest to the seriousness of the privacy invasion side. The record involved was the Bureau of Land Management's mailing list for its newsletter. The requester indicated that it wanted to send its own literature to these people. The court affirmed the district court order to release, holding, inter alia, that consideration of "the types of mailings and other contacts or solicitations that the [persons on a mailing list] were likely to receive" as a result of disclosure to the particular requester is a valid criteria for measuring the seriousness of the invasion of personal privacy. 83 F.3d at 1172. Obviously this approach, while quite logical, cannot help but lead to different treatment for different requesters.
The Supreme Court agreed that such disparate treatment would be the result and reversed the decision on the ground that it was inconsistent with Reporters Committee. Bibles v. Oregon Natural Desert Association, 519 U.S. 355, 117 S.Ct. 765 (1997).
In the second, Avondale Industries, Inc. v. NLRB, 90 F.3d 955 (5th Cir. 1996), the same court which decided Halloran gave lip service to that opinion, but then ordered release based at least in part on the intended use of the records by the particular requester (i.e., determining whether the NLRB is conducting representation elections properly).
The court in a more recent decision adopted yet another creative method of avoiding the problems resulting from Reporters Committee. The requester was seeking a list of names of depositors with unclaimed funds at three banks for which the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was the receiver for the purpose of soliciting them to hire him to assist their recovery of those funds. The court stated that this case differed from most FOIA personal privacy ones in that the subjects had a "clear prospect of securing a direct benefit by virtue of disclosure
. . . Accordingly, we hold that the FOIA analysis under Exemption 6 must include consideration of any interest the [subject(s) might have in the release of the information, particularly when the individuals who are `protected' under this exemption are likely unaware of [the existence of] the information that could benefit them." Lepelletier v. FDIC, 164 F.3d 37, 47-48 (D.C. Cir. 1999). The court ordered release of the list in a manner that did not link names rith the amount of unclaimed funds. It also stated that the district court might set a deposit amount below which the privacy interest outweighed any potential benefit.
Ray v. Dept. of Justice, 908 F.2d 1589 (11th Cir. 1990), demonstrates, however, that there is still a good deal of uncertainty as to other Exemption 6 issues. The records at issue involved identifying details concerning Haitian refugees whom the United States had returned to Haiti. The court recognized that (1) the potential privacy invasion was significant, and (2) disclosure would not "directly" reveal any information related to FOIA's core purpose. It nevertheless held that the deleted portions were not exempt because they would provide the means (e.g., interviews with returned interdictees in Haiti) of learning "whether the United States government is adequately monitoring Haiti's obligation not to persecute returnees and to learn whether our government is [being] honest to the public about Haiti's treatment of returnees." 908 F.2d at 1555.
The Supreme Court reversed in Dept. of State v. Ray, 504 U.S. 164 (1991). The court expressly declined to decide the issue of whether requesters could establish a public interest through a "derivative use" (i.e., interviews with Haitians returned to their country) of the records requested. It decided the case by holding that (1) the court of appeals had not given sufficient weight to the invasion of personal privacy which would result from disclosure, and (2) the public interest was adequately served by the release of redacted copies of the interviews with the names and identifying details deleted. In an interesting concurrence, Justice Scalia stated his view that it was incorrect to employ a derivative use to establish either a public interest or an invasion of privacy. It will be interesting to see if any other courts follow up on this view.
Another significant Exemption 6 issue relates to records concerning alleged federal employee misconduct. In Cochran v. United States, 770 F.2d 949, 956 (11th Cir. 1985), the court stated: "Therefore, courts favor disclosure under the FOIA balancing test when a government official's actions constitute a violation of the public trust . . . . We agree that the balance struck under FOIA exemption 6 overwhelmingly favors the disclosure of information relating to a violation of the public trust by a government official."
In Beck v. Dept. of Justice, 997 F.2d 1489 (D.C. Cir. 1993), however, the court took an extremely restrictive view concerning the public interest in government employees' misconduct when it affirmed the agency's refusal to confirm or deny whether or not it had records containing credible evidence that two named DEA agents had engaged in wrongdoing. "The public's interest in disclosure of personnel files derives from the purpose of the [FOIA] -- the preservation of `the citizens' right to be informed about what their government is up to'. . .The identity of one or two individual relatively low-level government wrongdoers, released in isolation, does not provide information about the agency's own conduct." 997 F.2d at 1492-93. The court distinguished its decision in Stern v. FBI, 737 F.2d 84 (D.C. Cir. 1984), in which it had ordered release of records relating to wrongdoing by government employees as follows: "That case occurred against a backdrop of a well-publicized scandal, and the public was aware that certain employees had been censured, one of them for having deliberately suppressed evidence." 997 F.2d at 1493.
Other courts, however, have taken a more liberal view. "In virtually all cases. . .disclosure of the information adduced in an agency investigation [of alleged employee misconduct] serves the public interest at least to the extent that it sheds light on the agency's performance of its official duties. . . . The higher the rank of the public official alleged to have engaged in misconduct, the greater the legitimate public interest in disclosure is likely to be." Providence Journal Co. v. Dept. of Army, 981 F.2d 552, 568 (1st Cir. 1992).
In Dobronski v. FCC, 17 F.3d 275 (9th Cir. 1994), the court ordered release of records relating to allegations that a senior official had abused sick leave. "While we agree that government employees may have some privacy interest in the dates and times they took sick leave . . . this nominal privacy interest . . . does not overcome the public interest in disclosure of official misconduct." 17 F.3d at 279.
Note: The above discussion concerning records relating to employee misconduct applies equally to Exemption 7(C).
As with Exemption 4, Exemption 6 cannot be used to withhold information (no matter how sensitive) which can be rendered anonymous.
Exemption 6 cannot be used to protect the privacy of a deceased individual, but it seems reasonable that it could be used to protect the privacy of close relatives or associates when release would satisfy the clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy standard with regard to their personal privacy. This principle has not, however, been conclusively established. See New York Times v. NASA, 782 F.Supp. 628 (D.D.C. 1991).
In closing, it should be noted that the discussion about balancing the seriousness of the invasion of
personal privacy against the public interest to be served by release also applies to Exemption 7(C) below.
Exemption 7. . . .records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent
that production of such law enforcement records or information. . .
This exemption was substantially revised in the 1974 Amendments as a result of a floor amendment proposed by the American Bar Association and introduced by Senator Philip Hart. Its purpose was to overturn a line of cases (primarily from the D.C. Circuit) interpreting the original Exemption 7 as applying forever to all investigatory files compiled for law enforcement purposes, regardless of whether all proceedings had been completed or abandoned and regardless of whether release was likely to cause harm to any legitimate private or governmental interest. E.g., Weisberg v. Dept. of Justice, 489 F.2d 1195 (D.C. Cir. 1973). The exemption was amended to allow withholding only when release was likely to cause one or more of six specified categories of harm (each of which will be discussed separately below). See Source Book II at 332-352. See also 1974 Blue Book at 3-13.
Congress amended this exemption again in 1986. The Department of Justice argues that these amendments "substantially broaden the law enforcement exemptions" in the FOIA (1987 Blue Book at ii), but most observers agree that to a large extent they simply codify existing case law.
One notable exception, however, is the threshold requirement, which the 1986 amendment substantially broadened. Now the exemption potentially reaches any "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes." It is no longer limited to "investigatory" records. Thus Exemption 7 now almost certainly includes all law enforcement manuals previously withheld under "high-2" and may include others. Arguably, the exemption will also now include routine audits and inspections. See 1987 Blue Book at 7. But see, John Doe Corp. v. John Doe Agency, 850 F.2d 105 (2d Cir. 1988).
The phrase "law enforcement purposes" is not limited to criminal law enforcement activities. It also includes civil and administrative law enforcement, as well as lawful national security investigations. E.g., Strang v. Arms Control & Disarmament Agency, 864 F.2d 859 (D.C. Cir. 1989), Williams v. IRS, 479 F.2d 317 (3rd Cir. 1973).
Most courts that have considered this issue agree that law enforcement agencies do not have to establish a specific law enforcement purpose in each instance to satisfy Exemption 7's threshold requirements. The courts differ, however, as to whether they must show anything more than that they are a law enforcement agency.
Under the per se rule, any record compiled by a law enforcement agency meets the threshold test. The principal rationale is that the nexus test (discussed below) would leave innocent third parties and law enforcement officials vulnerable to exposure when an agency had acted improperly. See, e.g., Jones v. FBI, 41 F.3d 238 (6th Cir. 1994).
The D.C. Circuit is the leading proponent of the more restrictive nexus test:
We believe that the preferable test is an adaptation of the two-prong "rational nexus" test articulated by the Court of Appeals for
the District of Columbia Circuit in Pratt [v. Webster, 673 F.2d 408 (D.C. Cir. 1982)]. Under this test, the government must identify
a particular individual or incident as the object of the investigation and specify the connection of the individual or incident to a
potential violation of law or security risk. The agency must then demonstrate that this relationship is based upon information
"sufficient to support at least a `colorable claim' of its rationality."
Davin v. Dept. of Justice, 60 F.3d 1043, 1056 (3rd Cir. 1995).
The D.C. Circuit refined this position in Campbell v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 164 F.3d 20 (D.C. Cir. 1998). It held that to use any part of Exemption 7, the agency must establish "a rational nexus between the withheld [records] and legitimate law enforcement purpose, [and] explain why each withheld document or set of closely similar documents relate to a particular purpose. 164 F.3d at 32-33. The fact that some records about a particular person meet the rational nexus test, does not justify the application of Exemption 7 to all records about that person.
Not all courts, however, are willing to defer automatically to an agency's claim of a nexus between an investigation and the enforcement of a federal law within its jurisdiction. Rosenfeld v. Dept. of Justice, 57 F.3d 803 (9th Cir. 1995). In Quinon v. FBI, 86 F.3d 1222, 1229 (D.C. Cir. 1996), the court reaffirmed the requirement that there must be a "rational basis for the investigation."
The agency must, however, have the authority to exercise a law enforcement function. Church of Scientology v. IRS, 995 F.2d 916 (9th Cir. 1993). Moreover, if the investigation is one which the agency lacked authority to conduct, it may not invoke Exemption 7. Weiseman v. CIA, 565 F.2d 692 (D.C. Cir. 1977). This limitation itself has limitations. In one case the requester was seeking summaries of FBI records compiled during the agency's surveillance of Martin Luther King. He contended that this surveillance was beyond the FBI's authority and that, therefore, it could not utilize Exemption 7 to withhold the summaries. The court expressed doubts as to whether the FBI could have used Exemption 7 to protect the original surveillance records but held that it could do so for the summaries because they were clearly "compiled during the course of a legitimate law enforcement investigation. . .We thus resist appellant's suggestion that we somehow should `pass through' the Task Force notes to the underlying FBI surveillance records." Lesar v. Dept. of Justice, 636 F.2d 472, 486 (D.C. Cir. 1980). One court has even gone so far as to state that the FOIA does not permit courts to inquire "into whether the FBI's asserted law enforcement purpose was legitimate." Ferguson v. FBI, 957 F.2d 1059, 1070 (2d Cir. 1992).
Three months later, the D.C. Circuit stood Lesar on its head to hold that records compiled from other records that clearly satisfied Exemption 7's threshold test did not themselves satisfy the test. This holding that the fact of being an investigatory record compiled for law enforcement purposes does not pass through to a record generated from the original was extremely disturbing in its immediate context and could have been extended to other exemptions. Abramson v. FBI, 658 F.2d 806 (D.C. Cir. 1980). It was reversed, however, by the Supreme Court. FBI v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615 (1982).
The exemption also applies to attempts to compel testimony about records compiled for law enforcement purposes. "It makes little sense to protect the actual files from disclosure while forcing the government to testify about the contents." In Re Sealed Case, 856 F.2d 268, 271 (D.C. Cir. 1988).
The Supreme Court had another occasion to consider Exemption 7's threshold requirement in John Doe Agency v. John Doe Corp., 493 U.S. 146 (1989). The issue in that case was whether records which were not originally compiled for law enforcement purposes could nevertheless meet this requirement if they subsequently became part of a law enforcement proceeding. The Court reversed the Second Circuit (850 F.2d 105) to held that they could. The statutory phrase "compiled for law enforcement purposes" contains "no requirement that compilation be effected at a specific time. The objects sought merely must have been `compiled' when the Government invokes the exemption." 493 U.S. at 150. Thus, records originally compiled for one, non-law enforcement purpose, can subsequently be compiled for a second, law enforcement one and thereby satisfy Exemption 7's threshold test.
In Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. EPA, 865 F.2d 309 (D.C. Cir. 1988), the court criticized the district court
for expressly giving "substantial weight" to an agency affidavit in an Exemption 7 case. "We have not found
it appropriate to extend any special deference beyond the Exemption 1 context." Id. at 315. it did not,
however, rule directly on the issue.
Exemption 7(A). . . .could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings. . .
This subparagraph has proven to be the most controversial part of Exemption 7. The controversy centers on the questions of (1) whether the government must do more to utilize this exemption than merely establish that the records are part of an active investigation or law enforcement proceeding, and (2) if so, what else it must establish. In the first two years there was a gradual, but definite, trend toward the result (if not the letter) of (1) above. Abrahamson Chrysler-Plymouth, Inc. v. NLRB, 561 F.2d 63 (7th Cir. 1977); NLRB v. Hardeman Garment Corp., 557 F.2d 559 (6th Cir. 1977); Harvey's Wagon Wheel, Inc. v. NLRB, 550 F.2d 1139 (9th Cir. 1976); New England Medical Center Hospital v. NLRB, 548 F.2d 377 (1st Cir. 1976); Climax Molybdenum Co. v. NLRB, 593 F.2d 63 (10th Cir. 1976); Roger J. Au & Son v. NLRB 538 F.2d 80 (3rd Cir. 1976); Title Guarantee Co. v. NLRB, 534 F.2d 484 (2d Cir. 1976).
This trend came to an abrupt halt when the Fifth Circuit held that the likelihood of specific, identified forms of interference must be affirmatively established in each individual case. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co. v. NLRB, 563 F.2d 724 (5th Cir. 1977). Accord, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority v. Perry, 571 F.2d 195 (4th Cir. 1978).
The Supreme Court reversed, stating that the American Bar Association's description of its proposed Exemption 7 "clearly suggests that the release of information in investigatory files prior to the completion of an actual, contemplated enforcement proceeding was precisely the kind of interference that Congress continued to protect against." NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 232 (1978).
It went on to hold that Exemption 7(A) permits generic determinations "that with respect to particular kinds of enforcement proceedings, disclosures of particular kinds of investigatory records while a case is pending would generally `interfere with enforcement proceedings.'" Id. at 236.
The court also stated that it constituted interference to give "a party litigant earlier and greater access to
the Board's case than he otherwise would have." Id. at 241. This point was emphasized in a concurring
The "act of meddling in" a process is one of Webster's accurate definitions of the word "interference." A statute that authorized
discovery greater than that available under the rules normally applicable to an enforcement proceeding would "interfere" with the
proceedings in that sense.
Id. at 243. It was also the principal subject of a dissenting opinion.
In a footnote which has itself generated a good deal of controversy, the Court expressed the view that the fact that compliance with an FOIA request would cause delays in an adjudicatory proceeding was relevant to the question of interference. Id. at 238, n.18. The meaning of this note is extremely important in situations where an FOIA request includes hundreds, or even thousands, of records, and the only way it can be processed is to pull personnel off the enforcement proceeding, thereby causing delays.
This problem is even more serious if these personnel are forced to compile a detailed Vaughn index. Thus the clear majority rule today is that Robbins Tire allows the government to satisfy its burden of proof by submitting a "generic" affidavit which groups the records into categories and specifies the type of harm which it claims would result from the release of each of these categories. Barney v. IRS, 618 F.2d 1268 (8th Cir. 1980); Moorfield v. Secret Service, 611 F.2d 1021 (5th Cir. 1980). But see Bristol-Meyers Co. v. FTC, 598 F.2d 18 (D.C. Cir, 1978).
In In Re Department of Justice, 950 F.2d 530 (8th Cir. 1991), the government appealed an order to submit
a Vaughn index for records which the agency claimed were exempt under Exemption 7(A). The court of
appeals rejected the government's argument that the Supreme Court's decision in Robbins Tire deprived
district courts of the authority to require Vaughn indexes for records withheld under this exemption. The
court recognized that as a result of Robbins Tire it was often proper for a district court not to require a
Vaughn index for records withheld under 7(A), but held that this decision did not either eliminate the district
courts' obligation to insure that the government had met its burden of proof in FOIA cases, or allow agencies
to withhold records merely because they are contained in a law enforcement file. Thus a
district court is well within its authority to verify that the agency has actually examined and properly characterized each document.
It may accomplish this task by requiring an affidavit that describes, on a document-by-document basis, the documents in the file,
the categories into which each document are placed, and a description of how disclosure of each category might interfere with
950 F.2d at 534. The court added that adopting the government's argument here would turn 7(A) into a "blanket" exemption. As discussed above, in the section dealing with Vaughn indexes, however, the court reconsidered this case en banc and did exactly that. In Re Department of Justice, 999 F.2d 1302 (8th Cir. 1993). See also, Dickerson v. Dept. of Justice, 992 F.2d 1426 (6th Cir. 1993).
The continuing uncertainty surrounding what the government must establish to justify asserting Exemption 7(A) is illustrated by Campbell v. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 518 F.Supp. 114 (D.D.C. 1981), vacated and remanded, 682 F.2d 256 (D.C. Cir. 1982). The district court held "that the government can meet its burden of proof by demonstrating pendency of an ongoing investigation and that the withheld information was clearly related to it." 518 F.Supp. at 1115. In holding that this showing was not sufficient, the court of appeals stated that "the government must show by more than conclusory statements how the particular kinds of investigatory records requested would interfere with a pending enforcement proceeding." 682 F.2d at 259.
In a similar vein, the court in J.P. Stevens & Co., Inc. v. Perry, 710 F.2d 136 (4th Cir. 1983), rejected the agency's argument "that disclosure of any law enforcement record is interference with the enforcement proceedings. This is the exact argument Congress rejected by amending the FOIA in 1974. 710 F.2d at 140. It also held, however, that the "premature discovery" which could result from "using the Freedom of Information Act as a discovery tool. . .is the type of `interference' prohibited by exemption 7(A)." Id. at 143.
For an example of an agency Exemption 7(A) justification which the court found sufficient, see, Swan v.
SEC, 96 F.3d 498, 499 (D.C. Cir. 1996):
The records. . .disclose the identity of witnesses, contain information obtained from sources other that [plaintiffs] and reflect the
Commission staff's selective recording of [plaintiff's former attorney's] statements, revealing the scope and focus of the
investigation. Producing those records would risk allowing those under Commission scrutiny to tailor their testimony, intimidate
witnesses, manufacture favorable evidence, and conceal damaging evidence.
In North v. Walsh, 881 F.2d 1088 (D.C. Cir. 1989), however, the influential D.C. Circuit expressly rejected the argument that "the fact that a defendant in an ongoing criminal proceeding may obtain documents via FOIA that he could not procure through discovery, or at least before he could obtain them through discovery" constituted interference with that law enforcement proceeding within the meaning of Exemption 7(A). 881 F.2d at 1097.
In Crooker v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 789 F.2d 64 (D.C. Cir. 1986), the court gave one
of the clearest rejections to date of a government attempt to claim a blanket exemption for open law
enforcement files. It also set forth an excellent summary of what is required under Robbins Tire. In a key
portion of its opinion, the court stated:
Because generic determinations are permitted, the government need not justify its withholdings document-by-document; it may
instead do so category of-document by category-of-document. The government may not, however, make its justification filed-by-file.
. .The hallmark of an acceptable Robbins category is thus that it is functional; it allows the court to trace a rational link between the
nature of the document and the alleged likely interference. If the government is unable to make such a showing without revealing
information that could interfere with enforcement proceedings, the district court may accept in camera submissions; but that course
should be taken, we have cautioned, only when it is unavoidable.
Id. at 67.
The courts are not in complete agreement on the applicability of Exemption 7(A) to information provided by the requester. In Grasso v. IRS, 785 F.2d 70 (3rd Cir. 1986), the court held that generally such records must be released. In Willard v. IRS, 776 F.2d 100, 103 (4th Cir. 1985), however, the court agreed with the government's argument that release of notes made during interviews with the requester would allow him "to anticipate the course of the tax investigation and, through later statements, create an appearance of consistency."
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. EPA, 856 F.2d 309 (D.C. Cir. 1988), presented a variation of this question in that the plaintiff was seeking copies of its own corporate documents which a third party had provided to EPA. The key to the court's decision was that plaintiff did no know which documents the third party had furnished. Thus, EPA was able to justify withholding under 7(A) on grounds that disclosure would:
(1) enable a potential defendant to learn details concerning the scope of the investigation; and
(2) allow identification of the third party sources, which could lead to possible witness intimidation.
It should also be noted that although generally Exemption 7(A) does not apply to closed cases, it may still be utilized when that closed file overlaps with another case which is still active. AMF Head Division of AMF v. NLRB, 564 F.2d 374 (10th Cir. 1977); New England Medical Center Hospital v. NLRB, 458 F.2d 377 (1st Cir. 1976).
Congress recognized the fact that the government almost always prevailed in withholding records relating
to an open case in 1986 when it added the phrase "could reasonably be expected to" to Exemption 7(A).
Since the government virtually always won in this situation, the amendment should not significantly affect
results, although it may ease the government's burden of proof. For a more expansive view, see 1987 Blue
Book at 9-13.
Exemption 7(B). . . .would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication. . .
The Attorney General offered the following interpretation:
Clause (B) would typically be applicable when requested material would cause prejudicial publicity in advance of a criminal trial,
or a civil case tried to a jury. The provision is obviously aimed at more than just inflammation of jurors, however, since juries do
not sit in administrative proceedings. In some circumstances, the release of damaging and unevaluated information may threaten
to distort administrative judgment in pending cases, or release may confer an unfair advantage upon one party to an adversary
1974 Blue Book at 9.
Washington Post Co. v. Dept. of Justice, 863 F.2d 96 (D.C. Cir. 1988), is the first significant judicial interpretation of this exemption. The court held that to assert it successfully the government must show "(1) that a trial or adjudication is pending or truly imminent; and (2) that it is more probable than not that disclosure of the material sought would seriously interfere with the fairness of those proceedings." 863 F.2d at 102. The court held that the second test would be satisfied if "disclosure through FOIA would furnish access to a document not available under the discovery rules and thus would confer an unfair advantage on one of the parties." Id.
In a somewhat novel twist, a plaintiff argued that since this exemption protected records whose disclosure would impair a person's right to a fair trial, courts "should mandate disclosure of information that would enhance a criminal defendant's right to an impartial adjudication."
Burge v. Eastburn, 934 F.2d 577, 580 (5th Cir. 1991). The court rejected this argument because "it misstates
the fundamental structure of the FOIA." Id. The only affirmative duties to disclose in the FOIA are those
in paragraphs (a)(1) - (a)(3), and they do not apply to records which are protected by one or more of the
exemptions in subsection (b).
Exemption 7(C). . . .could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal
privacy. . .
As noted above, the analysis under Exemption 7(C) is almost identical to the balancing conducted under Exemption 6, with the same limitation on the kinds of public interest considerations courts can take into account. The only distinction is that the scales are tipped more toward withholding by the deletion of the word "clearly" so that all that must be established is that release would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of privacy." Stern v. FBI, 737 F.2d 84 (D.C. Cir. 1984). In 1986 Congress added the same "could reasonably be expected to" language as it did to Exemption 7(A), but courts had already been interpreting this exemption as if that phrase were present. Thus, the amendment has had little practical effect.
As explained above under Exemption 6, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the protection under Exemption 7(C) "is somewhat broader than the standard applicable to personnel, medical, and similar files."
It is error for a district court either to (1) use the requester's personal interest rather than the general public interest, or (2) consider the requester's personal knowledge in conducting its balancing analysis. Schiffer v. FBI, 78 F.3d 1405 (9th Cir. 1996).
This exemption is frequently employed to protect the identities of persons who were of "investigative interest" to a law enforcement agency but never charged with any wrongdoing, or who appear in investigative files solely because of their (apparently) innocent association with someone who was charged. E.g., Baez v. Dept. of Justice, 647 F.2d 1328 (D.C. Cir. 1980); Kuehnert v. FBI, 587 F.2d 372 (8th Cir. 1978); Maroscia v. Levi, 569 F.2d 1000 (7th Cir. 1977).
In Common Cause v. National Archives, 628 F.2d 179 (D.C. Cir. 1980), however, the court held that this
rule could not be applied on a per se basis. Although it remanded the case, it mentioned two factors which
it believed might require disclosure here (of the identities of candidates for federal office to whom certain
corporations had admitted making, or been alleged to have made, illegal campaign contributions):
First, the individuals were candidates for federal office, not private citizens. . .Second, the information sought about them concerned
campaign contributions which were then and are now required by law to be reported publicly.
Id. at 184.
The court did accept the government's contention that the information's reliability is relevant to the question of whether the records could be withheld but believed that there was not enough evidence in the record to support a determination one way or the other.
It appears likely, however, that the Supreme Court rendered these questions moot in Dept. of Justice v. Reporters Committee, 489 U.S. 749 (1989). Among the Court's significant rulings in that case was one that agencies need not conduct a balancing analysis in every Exemption 7(C) case. Instead, they could establish categorical, or generic, exemptions for rap sheets or other law enforcement records about private citizens.
Three months later, an appellate court interpreted this decision to hold that "we thus do not require that the government detail the precise harm which disclosure would inflict upon privacy interests of each individual; rather it must only show that release of the information `could reasonably' result in an unwarranted invasion of privacy." Halloran v. Veterans Administration, 874 F.2d 315, 320 (5th Cir. 1989).
In Safecard Services, Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197 (D.C. Cir. 1991), the court carried this rationale even
further to uphold the SEC's deletion of
the names and addresses of third parties mentioned in witness interviews, of customers listed in stock transaction records obtained
from investment companies, and of persons in correspondence with the SEC. . .We now hold categorically that, unless access
to the names and addresses of private persons appearing in files within the ambit of Exemption 7(C) is necessary in order to
confirm or refute compelling evidence that the agency engaged in illegal activity, such information is exempt from disclosure.
Accord, Davis v. Dept. of Justice, 968 F.2d 1296 (D.C. Cir. 1992).
Another court reaffirmed the principle that individuals have a strong privacy interest in the fact that their name appears in a law enforcement file, even if that file contains no other information about them. It then went on, however, to explain that, after Reporters Committee, once a court concluded that release would not further the public's knowledge about how an agency was carrying out its statutory duties, any invasion of privacy, no matter how slight, would be unwarranted. Fitgibbon v. CIA, 911 F.2d 755 (D.C. Cir. 1990).
The plaintiff argued in Burge v. Eastburn, 934 F.2d 577 (5th Cir. 1991), that release of the records in question would further the public interest of helping him to obtain a fair and impartial trial. The court held that such an interest was irrelevant after the Court's decision in Reporters Committee.
For an example where the court did find a public interest, see, Rosenfeld v. Dept. of Justice, 57 F.3d 803 (9th Cir. 1995) (whether FBI abused its law enforcement mandate).
Another court showed its willingness to seek a way of avoiding the limitations of Reporters Committee.
In considering a request for mug shots of person whom a grand jury had indicted the court ruled:
[T]he release of mug shots of individuals under indictment in federal court does not disclose personal information unrelated to the
daily work of the Marshals Service. Rather, such disclosure provides documentary evidence of the designated responsibilities of
an agency of the federal government. . .
Detroit Free Press v. Dept. of Justice, 73 F.3d 93, 96 (6th Cir. 1996). The court held that the subjects had no protectible privacy interest in these photographs, but that even if they did the public interest as described above would outweigh the privacy interest.
Cases where the person under investigation is a government employee are often extremely difficult ones, for, while courts have generally held that federal employees retain a privacy interest in their employment records, there usually is a tie between such records and an agency's performance of its duties. See, e.g., Dunkelberger v. Dept. of Justice, 906 F.2d 779 (D.C. Cir. 1990).
All court which have considered the issue, however, have rejected any kind of a general "watchdog" theory of public interest. E.g., the Eleventh Circuit rejected the argument that there was a strong public interest in disclosure because it would "enable the public to assess the thoroughness of the FBI's investigation. [Plaintiff's] justification would apply to any law enforcement investigation and if accepted as reason enough to compel disclosure would swallow Exemption 7(C) whole." Nadler v. Dept. of Justice, 955 F.2d 1479, 1490 (11th Cir. 1992). It added that such a public interest could outweigh the privacy considerations in a particular case if there were reason to believe that the agency had failed to carry out its investigative function properly. Another court, however, expressed its doubts as to whether disclosure of a single file would ever permit meaningful public scrutiny of the manner in which an agency conducts investigation. Hunt v. FBI, 972 F.2d 286 (9th Cir. 1992).
Still another court had the following to say on the general "watchdog" theory:
The public interest must relate to this disclosure of governmental activity rather than to the disclosure of information of private
conduct that happens to be located in government files. The weight of the public interest will be influenced by the degree to which
the governmental activity has general applicability.
Hale v. Dept. of Justice, 973 F.2d 894, 901 (10th Cir. 1992).
In McCutchen v. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 30 F.3d 183 (D.C. Cir. 1994), the court fashioned an almost impossible burden for requesters seeking to establish a public interest in law enforcement records. "A mere desire to review how an agency is doing its job, coupled with [mere] allegations that it is not, does not create a public interest sufficient to override the privacy interests protected by Exemption 7(C)." 30 F.3d at 188. It went on to hold that a requester would have to present "compelling evidence" that official misconduct occurred to establish more than a "negligible public interest." Id. at 189.
In Landano v. Dept. of Justice, 956 F.2d 422 (3rd Cir. 1992), the court held that there was no public interest cognizable under the FOIA in uncovering misconduct by a state government agency.
One appellate court held that Exemption 7(C) generally does not protect "information relating to business judgments and relationships. . .even if disclosure might tarnish someone's professional reputation. . .Nonetheless, it is true that the protection afforded reputation would generally shield information when disclosure would show that an individual was the target of a law enforcement investigation." Washington Post Co. v. Dept. of Justice, 863 F.2d 96, 101-102 (D.C. Cir. 1988).
Often a Glomar denial is the only means of protecting an individual's privacy, for a criminal law enforcement agency's admission that it has investigatory records about an individual would normally reveal that he/she has been suspected of being involved in, or associated with, some illegal activity. Strassman v. Dept. of Justice, 792 F.2d 1267 (4th Cir. 1986); Antonelli v. FBI, 721 F.2d 615 (7th Cir. 1983).
Several courts have also interpreted Exemption 7(C) to cover the identity of individuals who have provided information to law enforcement agencies during the course of an investigation when it could be shown that disclosure of that fact was likely to result in their harassment, opprobrium, physical injury, or even death. Cuccaro v. Secretary of Labor, 770 F.2d 355 (3rd Cir. 1985); Lesar v. Dept. of Justice, supra; Marcoscia v. Levi, supra. In this context Exemption 7(C) may overlap somewhat with Exemption 7(D).
Again, however, the courts will not allow agencies to use this rationale as a per se exemption, regardless of the reasons for an individual's appearance in the file. E.g., records of offers of general assistance to a law enforcement agency may present a much less significant privacy interest than ones showing either actual involvement in a criminal activity, or having provided information as a confidential source. Also, the mere fact that records are about a private individual does not preclude a finding that their disclosure would shed light on agency action. Nation Magazine v. U.S. Customs Service, 71 F.3d 885 (D.C. Cir. 1995).
Exemption 7(C) has also been used to protect the identities of law enforcement and other government personnel where release was likely to have an adverse impact such as harassment or some more serious form of retaliation. Again, however, this theory cannot be asserted or a per se basis and may be overcome by a showing of a strong public interest to be served by release in a particular case. Baez v. Dept. of Justice, supra; Nix v. United States, 572 F.2d 998 (4th Cir. 1978). In Bast v. Dept. of Justice, 665 F.2d 1251, 1254-55 (D.C. Cir. 1981), the court rejected the argument that public officials have no protectible privacy interests, holding that "while an individual's official position may enter the 7(C) balance. . .it does not determine, of its own accord, that the privacy interest is outweighed."
Disclosure of the fact that an individual provided information adverse to the interests of his employer may generally be protected under Exemption 7(C) absent a countervailing public interest. L&C Marine Transport v. United States, 740 F.2d 919 (11th Cir. 1984).
Exemption 7(D). . . .could reasonably be expected to disclose the
identity of a confidential source including a State, local or
foreign agency or authority or any private institution which
furnished information on a confidential basis, and, in the case of
a record or information compiled by a criminal law enforcement
authority in the course of a criminal investigation, or by an
agency conducting a lawful national security intelligence
investigation, confidential information furnished by a confidential
source. . .
Once again Congress' adding in 1986 of the "could reasonably be expected to" language to this exemption did little more than codify existing case law. The exemption encompasses the records of any law enforcement agency whose disclosure "could reasonably be expected to" reveal the identity of a confidential source. Congress did broaden the protection afforded the information by a confidential source to a criminal law enforcement authority by eliminating the requirement that this information come "only" from the confidential source. (There is no protection for information itself in records held by non-criminal law enforcement authorities -- unless its disclosure would tend to reveal the source's identity.)
Congress also codified existing case law to provide explicitly that "State, local, or foreign" agencies or authorities, and private institutions, can be confidential sources within the meaning of this exemption. It did not, however, touch on the question of whether federal government employees can be confidential sources. One court held that they could. Kuzma v. IRS, 775 F.2d 66 (2d Cir. 1985). The Office of Information and Privacy has advised federal agencies, however, not to make such a claim when the employee has provided information gathered in the performance of his official duties.
Congress initially added this exemption in 1974, and, after some initial controversy, it became clear that no express promise of confidentiality is required for a source's identity to be protectible under this exemption. Rather it is enough that he has supplied information under circumstances in which it was reasonable for him to assume that his identity would be kept confidential. E.g., Sands v. Murphy 633 F.2d 968 (1st Cir. 1980); Pope v. United States, 599 F.2d 1383 (5th Cir. 1979).
The next question is whether implied promises of confidentiality can be established on a generic basis (e.g., all persons whom the FBI interviews during an investigation), or must be demonstrated individually for each informant. This issue remained in doubt for some time. See Miller v. Bell, 661 F.2d 623 (7th Cir. 1981) (generic); Lame v. Dept. of Justice, 654 F.2d 917 (3rd Cir. 1981) (individually for each informant). The Supreme Court conclusively settled this issue, however, in Dept. of Justice v. Landano, 508 U.S. 165, 113 S.Ct. 2014 (1993). The Court rejected the argument that Exemption 7(D) requires an express promise of confidentiality, but also held that "the Government is not entitled to a presumption that all sources supplying information to the FBI in the course of a criminal investigation are confidential sources. . .Some narrowly defined circumstances can provide a basis for inferring confidentiality. For example, it is reasonable to infer that paid informants normally expect their cooperation with the FBI to be kept confidential." 508 U.S. 166, 113 S.Ct. at 2016. It also recognized that such circumstances will be easier to establish for individual sources than for institutional ones such as local police departments. See Massey v. FBI, 3 F.3d 620 (2d Cir. 1993).
Hale v. Dept. of Justice, 2 F.3d 1055 (10th Cir. 1993), was one
of the first post-Landano decisions. The court found that Landano
requires "a source-by-source determination of the expectations of
confidentiality." 2 F.3d at 1057. It remanded for this
determination and provided the following guidance:
If the district court chooses to rely on an inference of confidentiality for a particular source based upon the nature of the crime, the
court should clearly indicate that it is relying on such an inference, and the circumstances relied upon to support such an inference
should be articulated. In all other situations, the court should make findings particular to the source as to whether or not that source
"furnished [the] information with the understanding that the [agency] would not divulge the communication except to the extent [it]
thought necessary for law enforcement purposes."
Landano, 508 U.S. at 174, 113 S.Ct. at 2020. 2 F.3d at 1057.
Three years later this same case was back in the court of appeals. Hale v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 99 F.3d 1025 (10th Cir. 1996). The court began its analysis by holding that agencies cannot infer confidentiality in all criminal investigations. They cannot do so unless "there are discrete aspects of the crime that make it particularly likely that a source would fear reprisal." 99 F.3d at 1031. It gave the following examples of what it meant by this criteria:
1. gang-related crime of violence;
2. crime involving a cult or other extremist group;
3. series of repetitive premeditated crimes of violence;
4. crime of unusual cruelty or violence; and
5. actual threats against other, known sources.
It applied this criteria to find that the crime here, kidnapping/murder for economic motives, did not justify
inferring confidentiality for all sources. It thus remanded the case yet again with the following instructions:
Any such justification [for withholding as a confidential source] will have to be grounded upon the source's relationship to [the
plaintiff] or the crime[,] rather than solely upon the nature of the crime alone. And, a mere relationship with [plaintiff] or the crime
will not automatically support a 7(D) exemption unless a finding is made explaining why the source would reasonably expect that
the information provided would be kept confidential notwithstanding the failure of the source to request or receive an express
promise of confidentiality.
99 F.3d at 1033. The court also provided examples of categories of sources more likely to have reason to fear retaliation:
1. ones in close relationship with a defendant;
2. ones involved in crime;
3. a fellow prisoner or prison guard; and
4. another law enforcement agency passing on information from a confidential source.
The Second Circuit recently held that the showing of a likelihood of retaliation sufficient to justify a claim of an implied assurance of confidentiality need not involve a threat of physical harm. Rather, it "may constitute workplace harassment, demotions, job transfers, or loss of employment." Grand Central Partnership v. Cuomo, 166 F.3d 473, 488 (2d Cir. 1999).
To withhold on the basis of an express promise of confidentiality, an agency must present persuasive
evidence that it made such a promise. "Such evidence can take a wide variety of forms, including notations
on the face of a withheld document, the personal knowledge of an official familiar with the source, a
statement by the source, or contemporaneous documents discussing practices or policies for dealing with
the source or similarly situated sources." Campbell v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 164 F.3d 20, 34 (D.C. Cir. 1998).
In Halpern v. FBI, 181 F.3d 279, 299 (2d Cir. 1999), the court remanded because the agency's declaration
in support of its Exemption 7(D) claim "relies on bare assertions that express assurances were given to the
source in question, and that the information received was treated in a confidential manner during and
subsequent to its receipt." The court indicated that any of the following could be sufficient to establish an
declarations from agents who made the promise
contemporaneous documents indicating making of the promise
evidence of an SOP to promise confidentiality to relevant category of source
See Davin v. Dept. of Justice, 60 F.3d 1043 (3rd Cir. 1995), for an analysis of what agencies must show to rely on a policy of always giving express promises of confidentiality.
In a pre-Landano decision the court rejected the argument that the courts should review the reasonableness of an agency's express promises of confidentiality. "We think it more fair and efficient that law enforcement agencies be allowed to continue to extend assurances of confidentiality to their sources with the advice that confidentiality may be disclaimed." Providence Journal Co. v. Dept. of Army, 981 F.2d 552, 565 (1st Cir. 1992). There is no reason at this time to think that Landano will affect this holding, but it may do so to another portion of the decision where the court established a rebuttable presumption that persons who provide unsolicited information to a criminal law enforcement agency do so under an implied promise of confidentiality.
Unlike the personal privacy exemptions, Exemption 7(D) does not expire with the informant's death. Kiraly v. FBI, 728 F.2d 273 (6th Cir. 1984). Accord, Schmerler v. FBI, 900 F.2d 333 (D.C. Cir. 1990).
It also should be noted that the fact that a source has been identified as such for certain information does not mean that they cannot be protected as a confidential source for other information. Shaw v. FBI, 749 F.2d 58 (D.C. Cir. 1984). In fact, a criminal law enforcement authority may still withhold all information the source provided. Cleary v. FBI, 811 F.2d 421 (8th Cir. 1987).
A source's expression of willingness to testify if necessary does not negate an agency's ability to protect his identity until such time as he actually does testify. Irons v. FBI, 811 F.2d 681 (1st Cir. 1987). A First Circuit panel ruled that even if the informant does testify, he loses 7(D) protection only for "information which was sufficiently closely related to the subject matter of the informant's trial testimony that he or she should reasonably have expected it to be within the universe of likely inquiry and therefore, within the bounds of likely waiver." Irons v. FBI, 851 F.2d 532, 537 (1st Cir. 1988). The full court reversed that ruling, finding that disclosure only ran to information that was actually divulged at trial. Irons v. FBI, 880 F.2d 1446 (1st Cir. 1989).
In Ferguson v. FBI, 957 F.2d 1059 (2d Cir. 1992), the court considered a situation in which (1) a local
police department had released records relating to a confidential source under its state FOIA, and (2) the
informant had not only testified in open court but also had made statements to the press. Despite these
facts, it upheld the 7(D) claim:
Because we find the reasoning of the Irons court persuasive, we reject the idea that subsequent disclosures of the identity of a
confidential source or of some of the information provided by a confidential source requires full disclosure of [all] information
provided by such a source. . .If we were to hold that the unique circumstances here justify a deviation from the blanket rule, we
would be opening the door for a time-consuming consideration of factors in every situation.
957 F.2d at 1068.
The court also accepted the government's argument that:
once a confidential source is in any way associated with a piece of information, the promise of confidentiality attaches. . .never to
be removed under any circumstances. . .The statutory language does not leave room for a judicial balancing of the equities, or for
a determination of whether any harm would result from disallowing an exemption. . .Once it is shown that information was provided
by a confidential source, the information itself its protected from disclosure, despite the fact that there is no danger that the identity
of the source could be revealed.
Id. at 1069.
In Ortiz v. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 70 F.3d 729 (2d Cir. 1995), the court upheld the
withholding of an anonymous letter alleging that the requester was guilty of Social Security fraud. After
holding that (1) the fact that the letter was unsolicited did not preclude finding that the author was a
confidential source, and (2) the content of the letter would reveal the author's identity despite the lack of a
signature, the court stated:
The reasoning of Landano is not confined to situations of violent crime and the possibility of equally violent retaliation. Exemption
7(D) protects the identify of a confidential source in civil as well as criminal law enforcement situations, and the protection extends
to situations where the danger of retaliation encompasses more than the source's physical safety.
70 F.3d at 733.
The court also listed the following as factors which would support an implied assurance of confidentiality:
1. allegations are of serious misconduct; and
2. evidence that the source has a close relationship with the target.
Exemption 7(E). . . would disclose investigative techniques and procedures for law enforcement
investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or
prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law. . .
As mentioned above, Congress broadened this exemption in 1986 by eliminating the requirement that the records relate to "investigative" matters. It also expressly included "guidelines" and provided that agencies could withhold any records meeting the expanded threshold requirement if release "could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law." PHE, Inc. v. Dept. of Justice, 983 F.2d 248 (D.C. Cir. 1993), is an example of a rationale the court found acceptable: "For example, release of FBI guidelines as to what sources of information are available to its agents might encourage violators to tamper with those sources and thus inhibit investigative efforts."
Generally, this exemption protects only "confidential" techniques and procedures; i.e., ones whose existence is not commonly known. However, techniques and procedures may be exempt even if they are known to the public to some extent if disclosure of the circumstances of their use could lessen their effectiveness. Hale v. Dept. of Justice, 973 F.2d 894, 902-903 (10th Cir. 1992).
In Becker v. IRS, 34 F.3d 398, 405 (7th Cir. 1994), the court upheld withholding of records which "discuss varied investigative techniques used by the IRS with regard to tax protesters."
As with other exemptions, courts will not accept conclusory statements of confidentiality. Davin v. Dept.
of Justice, 60 F.3d 1065 (3rd Cir. 1995).
Exemption 7(F). . . .could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any
individual. . .
Congress also amended this exemption in 1986, adding the "could reasonably be expected to" language
and extending the coverage from law enforcement personnel to "any individual."
Exemption 8. . . . .contained in or related to examination, operating, or condition reports prepared by, on
behalf of, or for the use of an agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions.
This exemption received little judicial attention during the first decade of experience with the FOIA. The only significant decision was one holding that national securities exchanges and brokers are not "financial institutions" for purposes of the exemption. M.A. Shapiro & Co. v. SEC, 339 F.Supp. 467 (D.D.C. 1972).
In 1978, however, it received a comprehensive analysis from the D.C. Circuit and was held to be "a particularly broad, all-inclusive definition." Consumers Union v. Heimann, 589 F.2d 531, 533 (D.C. Cir. 1978). The court then held that the exemption included documents relating to the extent of compliance by certain national banks with the Consumer Credit Protection Act.
It explained its broad reading of this exemption (as contrasted with the general principle that FOIA exemptions are to be construed narrowly) on the ground that its legislative history indicated a congressional intent to (1) protect the security of financial institutions, and (2) "safeguard the relationship between the banks and their supervising agencies." Id. at 534.
Two years later the D.C. Circuit broadened this exemption even further by holding that it applied to records of a financial institution which had gone out of business. Gregory v. FDIC, 631 F.2d 896 (D.C. Cir. 1980).
This trend continued in Public Citizen v. Farm Credit Administration, 938 F.2d 290, 293-94 (D.C. Cir.
1991), in which the court held that "for purposes of exemption 8, a `financial institution' need not be a
depository institution, and examination reports need not pertain to an institution that is regulated or
supervised by the withholding agency."
Exemption 9. . . .geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells.
This exemption was added to the original FOIA primarily to mollify the oil industry and arguably it is completely subsumed with Exemption 4. In any event, it has not been the subject of any significant judicial interpretations.
Next Section: N. Exclusions