FOIA Exemptions Gobble Up The Statute

Last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case in which petitioners sought review of a First Circuit decision that upheld the “commercial information” exemption (exemption 4) to the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (FOIA). New Hampshire Right to Life v. Dep’t Health & Human Services, 778 F.3d 43 (1st Cir. 2015). See Lyle Denniston, “Court bypasses FOIA challenge,” SCOTUSblog (Nov. 16, 2015).

An anti-abortion group filed a FOIA request to obtain documents that Planned Parenthood had sent to the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services, in support of federal funding, for family planning activities in New Hampshire. The requested documents described Planned Parenthood’s internal medical standards and guidelines, as well as its set fees for various services. The federal trial court upheld the agency’s refusal to disclose the Planned Parenthood documents on the basis of § 552(b)(4) (Exemption 4, for “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a per­son and privileged or confidential”), as well as internal agency documents, on the basis of § 552(b)(5) (Exemption 5). The First Circuit affirmed the non-freedom of information. 778 F.3d 43.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, dissented from the Court’s denial of review. New Hampshire Right to Life, No. 14–1273, SCOTUS (Nov. 16, 2015) [Thomas Dissent] Justice Thomas intimated that the First Circuit’s decision may well have offended the Supreme Court’s interpretation of FOIA as reflecting “a general philosophy of full agency disclosure unless information is exempted under clearly delineated statutory language.” Department of Defense v. FLRA, 510 U. S. 487, 494 (1994).

Justice Thomas noted that the First Circuit based its conclusion not on the ordinary meaning of the term “confidential,” but on speculation whether FOIA disclosure might harm Planned Parenthood’s position in a conjectured market. The First Circuit ordained the Planned Parenthood manual confidential because “[a]potential future competitor could take advantage of the institutional knowledge contained in the Manual” to com­pete against the organization in the future. Justice Thomas intimated that he, and concurring Justice Scalia, disapproved of this speculation upon speculation approach. Thomas Dissent at 2. The dissenters also noted that the Supreme Court has yet to interpret Exemption 4, to FOIA, and that the lower courts have embraced this exemption as a broad exclusion, in derogation of the language and spirit of FOIA.

In discovery efforts to obtain information about litigation science, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health and Science (NIEHS), FOIA officers appear to invoke Exemption 4 routinely to deny disclosure. One case in point was the effort to obtain information about NIEHS-funded research of Dr. Brad A. Racette, on the prevalence of parkinsonism among welding tradesmen in Wisconsin Great Lakes shipyards. Racette is an academic researcher, on the faculty of Washington University St. Louis; he is not engaged in any commercial enterprise, in any imaginable use of the word “commercial.” His Wisconsin research was sponsored by the Boilermakers’ union, which had worked with the litigation industry (trial bar) to develop a litigation case against the manufacturers of welding rods. FOIA requests for scientific data, protocols, and analyses were met, by NIEHS, with over-zealous redactions with the invocation of FOIA exemptions, including assertions that data and analyses were “confidential commercial information.”

The redaction of one of Racette’s ESNAP reports, on Grant Number SR01ES13743-4, is illustrative. The multi-year grant, entitled “Epidemilogy [sic] of Parkinsonism in Welders,” was awarded to principal investigator Brad Racette in 2007. On October 29, 2009, Racette submitted a report that included data and data analysis. The NIEHS, on its own, or acting at the request of the principal investigator, redacted data, analyses, and conclusions, on grounds of “confidential commercial information.” Invoking an exemption for “commercial information” for federally funding of an epidemiologic study, conducted by university-based scientists seems an extreme distortion of the FOIA statute.

Cynics may say that Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented in the Planned Parenthood case because they were eager, to advance their theological ideology to exploit the opportunity to order disclosure that could hurt the good work that Planned Parenthood does. The dissenting justices deserve, however, to be taken at their word, and applauded for chastising their colleagues who were willing to abide the frustation of the word and spirit of the FOIA statute. Sadly, federal agencies seem to be determined to make information unfree. In the most recent evaluations, the Department of Health and Human Services received a failing grade, among the lowest grades for FOIA performance and responsiveness; only the State Department failed with a lower score. National Freedom of Information Coalition, “FOIA report card shows federal agencies missing the mark,” (Mar. 16, 2015); Center for Effective Government, “Making the Grade – Access to Information Scorecard 2015.”

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