Once the right agency (or component of an agency) has received a complete and perfected request, it has 20 working days to respond with its determination of whether to grant the request.
If information is denied in full or in part, the agency must give the reasons by this deadline. If it grants a request, the agency does not have to deliver the applicable documents within the time frame, but must do so promptly
FOIA allows agencies additional time to process requests in “unusual circumstances,” including 1) the need to search for and collect records from separate offices; 2) the need to examine a voluminous amount of records required by the request; and 3) the need to consult with another agency or agency component.
Many times agencies cannot meet the time limits, owing to the complexity of the request or to a backlog of prior FOIA requests.
In that case, agencies typically process requests on a first-in, first-out basis. Some agencies multitrack requests, allowing simpler requests to move through the system more quickly. Agencies sometimes expedite urgent requests if
a “compelling need” is shown.
To get an idea how quickly a particular agency generally responds to its requests, see that agency’s annual FOIA report, where it describes its compliance with the time limits and the
median number of days it requires to process requests. (The DOJ keeps all departments’ and agencies’ annual reports on its Web site.)