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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Court Rules in Favor of Federal Agencies in Federal FOIA Lawsuit

Over several years, a prisoner submitted hundreds of FOIA requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Marshals Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The prisoner's FOIA requests centered around a conspiracy theory that a movement he had joined that had white supremacy ties was an elaborate governmental sting operation. After the agencies either provided responsive redacted records, withheld exempt records, or highlighted that their searches failed to identify responsive records, the prisoner filed a lawsuit alleging that the agencies conducted inadequate searches. The district court ruled in favor of the government agencies, finding that each agency submitted an affidavit from agency personnel detailing the FOIA process and how their searches were reasonably calculated to locate responsive records.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in White v. United States Department of Justice also ruled in favor of the government agencies. The Court of Appeals found that the agency affidavits had a presumption of good faith, and in order to overcome this presumption of good faith, the requester had to to provide evidence that the agencies unreasonably overlooked records that would have been responsive to his FOIA requests. Here, the Court of Appeals determined that White’s speculative, conspiracy-based claims of bad faith searches failed to overcome that presumption because FOIA requires more than just speculation that additional documents exist to overcome the good faith presumption in the agency affidavits.

Although this case discusses the obligations of federal agencies to conduct reasonably diligent searches under the federal FOIA statute and the presumption of good faith given to detailed affidavits from agency officials, this case is relevant for Illinois public bodies, because the Illinois FOIA statute is modeled after its federal counterpart, so Illinois courts often look to federal cases as persuasive authority.

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov, Ancel Glink


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