How to File a FOIA Request
How to File a FOIA Request
Obtaining records may be a necessary job function for paralegals in order to gain information for a lawsuit discovery. However, getting information from the government can be a tricky task. But it doesn’t need to be. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides certain channels for you to request information from the government through a standardized process.
We provide answers to the six most common questions around FOIA requests below:
What is a FOIA request?
It stands for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA provides paralegals and the general public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. When information you want is not publicly available then that is when you need to submit a FOIA request. In order to save yourself some time, be sure to see if the information you are looking for is already publicly available. You can search online at FOIA.gov to see if any agency has posted information online.
Before making your request be sure you are sending your request to the right agency. Make sure you have the correct contact information by conducting a search of the appropriate agencies. You can also find details on any specific requirements for your records request for each.
How do I submit a FOIA request?
If as a paralegal you are in need of documents covered by FOIA, your request needs to be in writing and specifically state the type of records you are seeking. This request can be for any agency record. The more specific your request is the better the request process will go. You can send your request by email/fax. Most agencies accept electronic requests.
There is no specific form that has to be used when making a request. Just be sure to include how you wish to receive the records whether it be by mail/email/fax in your request.
Another item to add to your request is some type of statement limiting the amount you are willing to pay in fees and ask them to notify you should the agency’s fees exceed the amount you state in your request. Often a request can be submitted online.
Can anyone make a FOIA request?
Anyone can always conduct a FOIA request for their own information. However, if you are requesting records regarding someone else, you will need to submit an authorization signed by such individual permitting you to receive such records. If the person is deceased, then you will need to send proof of death such as a death certificate. If the request could possibly invade that person’s privacy, then it is more likely that FOIA will not release those records to you.
How long does a FOIA request take?
After the agency receives your request, you will receive a letter of acknowledgment as well as a number to reference with your particular request. If the agency needs further information from you in order to process your request, they will contact you.
Most agencies process requests in the order of when they receive requests. Depending on the complexity of the request and how many requests are ahead of yours will vary on the time it takes to respond to your request. Of course, the simpler your request is the more likely your request will be processed faster. On the more complex requests, they can take longer due to having to search for more records in multiple locations.
In some situations, you can ask that your FOIA request be expedited:
- If the lack of expedited treatments is reasonably expected to pose a threat to someone’s life or physical safety.
- If there is an urgency to inform the public about an actual or alleged Federal Government activity, if made by a person who is engaged in disseminating information.
Some agencies have additional standards for granting expedited processing.
What are the nine exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act?
Once the records have been reviewed that pertain to your request and are protected from disclosure (see FOIA’s nine exemptions) then the releasable records will be sent to you. Paralegals should understand that some records may be redacted or blacked out due to the nine exemptions:
- Exemption 1:Information that is classified to protect national security.
- Exemption 2:Information related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.
- Exemption 3:Information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law.
- Exemption 4:Trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is confidential or privileged.
- Exemption 5:Privileged communications within or between agencies, including those protected by the:
- Deliberative Process Privilege (provided the records were created less than 25 years before the date on which they were requested)
- Attorney-Work Product Privilege
- Attorney-Client Privilege
- Exemption 6:Information that, if disclosed, would invade another individual’s personal privacy.
- Exemption 7:Information compiled for law enforcement purposes that:
- 7(A). Could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings
- 7(B). Would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication
- 7(C). Could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy
- 7(D). Could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source
- 7(E). Would disclose 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
- 7(F). Could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual
- Exemption 8:Information that concerns the supervision of financial institutions.
- Exemption 9:Geological information on wells.
How much does a FOIA request cost?
There is no initial fee required when submitting a request. FOIA does charge for their time to search for such records and for duplicating the records. According to the website, there is usually no charge for the first two hours of search time or for the first 100 pages of duplication.
Please note: You may be required to pay for a search, even if the agency finds no records.
If you need a status of your request, look for the FOIA Requester Service Center from the agency you requested from. Good luck!