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Who can file a FOIA request?

Anyone, anywhere, for any reason can request information from the government under FOIA. That includes individuals (including foreign citizens), partnerships, corporations, associations, and domestic or foreign governments (with newly enacted exceptions). However, the act does assign requesters to different categories in order to determine fees and fee waivers.

How long does it take to get information under FOIA?

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 thereafter.

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.)

What information cannot be obtained through FOIA?

All agency records must be made available to the public under FOIA, except:

  1. Records properly classified as secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.
  2. Records related solely to internal personnel rules and practices.
  3. Records specifically made confidential by other statutes.
  4. Trade secrets and commercial or financial information that is obtained from a person and is privileged or confidential.
  5. Inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters, except under certain circumstances.
  6. Personnel and medical files and similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
  7. Records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, the release of which (a) could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings, (b) would deprive a person of a right to a fair trail or impartial adjudication, (c) could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, (d) could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source, (e) would disclose investigative techniques, and/or (f) could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.
  8. Information contained in or related to certain examination, operating, or condition reports concerning financial institutions.
  9. Certain information concerning gas or oil wells.

For a detailed discussion on how these FOIA exemptions have been interpreted and defined by the courts, see the “Justice Department Guide to the Freedom of Information Act.”

To get an idea how the exemptions are used by a particular agency, see that agency’s annual FOIA report, where it tallies it use of each exemption during that year. (The DOJ keeps all departments’ and agencies’ annual reports on its Web site.)

How do you appeal a denial of information under FOIA?

If you are not satisfied with an agency’s initial response, you may file an administrative appeal. This appeal goes to the head of the agency, who will review the case and sometimes override the initial decision. Appeals can be made over denial of information, if you feel that exemptions were improperly applied, or over procedural aspects, for example if you believe there are records the agency failed to locate.

If your agency appeal is denied, you have the right to appeal the decision in federal district court. You may appeal a decision whether it is based on an exemption or on procedural aspects (e.g., an agency’s determination that a record does not exist or the fee amount it assessed). At this point in the FOIA process, most people will require the assistance of an attorney.

Can I request information from my congressman through FOIA?

No. The Freedom of Information Act does not cover Congress, the president or the courts.

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