Filing a Freedom of Information Act Request in Florida
In 1967, Congress passed The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which gives the public the right to request access to government records from any federal agency. However, certain types of documents are unavailable to the public and the process of filing a request can be difficult, so if you have questions or concerns about obtaining access to the records of a federal agency, it is important to contact an experienced attorney who can help explain walk you through the process.
Under the FOIA, federal agencies are required to make certain information available to the public by publishing it in the Federal Register, including:
- Descriptions of their central and field organizations and the established places at which the public can obtain information and submit requests;
- Statements of the method by which their functions are determined, including the requirements of all formal and informal procedures;
- Rules of procedure, descriptions of available forms, and instructions as to the contents of their reports, papers, and examinations;
- Substantive rules and statements of general policy; and
- All repeals and amendments of rules and procedures.
In 2016, the FOIA was further amended to require that agencies make certain documents available for public inspection in an electronic format, including:
- Final opinions and orders made during the adjudication of cases;
- Statements of policy and interpretations adopted by the agency that are not published elsewhere;
- Administrative staff manuals and instructions that affect members of the public; and
- A general index of available records.
Additionally, copies of all records that satisfy the following criteria must be published:
- Documents that have been released as a result of a previous request;
- Records that, because of their subject matter, are more likely to become the subject of subsequent requests; and
- Documents that have been requested three or more times.
Filing a Request
If the information that a person is seeking is not available on an agency website, he or she must submit an official request in writing to the agency’s FOIA Office. The document must also fall under the FOIA’s definition of a record, which means any information that is under the control of an agency, including information:
- Stored; and
- Retrievable by electronic means.
It also includes all documents made in or received by the agency and preserved as evidence of its:
- Procedures; and
It is also important to keep in mind that the FOIA does not require agencies to create new records, to conduct research, to analyze data, or to answer questions in response to a request. Those seeking information can submit a request either electronically through FOIAonline or through the mail. To send a request through the mail, however, a requester must take certain steps, including:
- Writing the words Freedom of Information Act Request at the top of the letter and on the outside of the envelope;
- The date of the request;
- Providing his or her telephone number or email address; and
- Providing as much information as possible about the document he or she is seeking.
FOIA requests also require the payment of a fee, which varies depending on the type of request. Those submitting a request can indicate how much they are willing to pay in search fees. Alternatively, if an agency estimates that a search will cost more than $25, it will notify the requester prior to doing the search. Fees can be waived in situations where the disclosure of the information would likely contribute to public understanding of government activities. To establish this, a person must satisfy certain requirements, including that:
- The records are being sought for their informative value regarding government operations;
- The records are meaningfully informative in relation to the subject matter of the request;
- The disclosure contributes to public understanding and not just to the individual understanding of the requester; and
- The disclosure significantly contributes to public understanding.
If an agency determines that these factors are satisfied, it then ensures that disclosure is not being made for the commercial interest of the requester. If there is a commercial component, the agency weighs that interest against the public interest factors listed above. If no commercial interest exists, a fee waiver or reduction will be granted.
The amount of time it takes for the request to be fulfilled depends on the backlog of pending requests as well as the complexity of each individual submission. Generally, simple requests that are more targeted and seek fewer pages of records are processed faster by agencies.
Federal agencies are required to allow public access to many types of records. There are, however, nine exempt categories where the government can withhold information, including:
- Classified information for national defense or foreign policy;
- Internal personnel rules or practices;
- Information that is exempt under other laws;
- Medical and personnel files;
- Trade secrets and confidential business information;
- Agency memoranda protected by legal privilege;
- Law enforcement records;
- Bank supervision records; and
- Geological information.
However, only certain types of law enforcement and national security records are excluded, namely those that fall under one of the following categories:
- Information related to an existence of an ongoing criminal investigation when the subject is unaware that a case is pending and disclosure could interfere with enforcement proceedings;
- Informant records when the informant’s status hasn’t been confirmed; or
- Classified FBI foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, or international terrorism records.
If a requested record falls under one of these categories, it can be denied in whole or in part. If denied, the agency that made the decision must notify the requester of the denial and of his or her right to file an administrative application for review. These applications must be filed within one month of the date of the agency’s written denial. If the request is denied a second time, the person who submitted the request can seek judicial review of the decision in a U.S. District Court.
Contact Pike & Lustig, LLP Today
The FOIA grants Americans access to important agency documents. Making a request, however, is not always easy, so if you live in Florida and have questions about a FOIA request, please contact our experienced legal team at Pike & Lustig, LLP at 561-291-8298 to schedule an initial consultation.