The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a major ruling last week preserving the rights of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesters to proceed to court quickly when agencies don't comply with the legally required timelines to respond to demands for government records.
The court held that FOIA requires agencies to review responsive documents and to tell requesters what documents the agency will produce, what it will withhold, and why, within 20 days of receiving the request (in some cases, 30 days). Otherwise the agency risks incurring a challenge in federal district court.
In 2011, a lower court ruled that an agency's
acknowledgement of a request was enough to trigger the legal requirement
that a requester pursue an administrative appeal with the agency before
going to court. However, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously rejected that stance.
By allowing requesters to sue
when the time limit is up, the D.C. Circuit decision will likely
accelerate some responses in some cases and make it more difficult for
agencies to selectively delay requests.