FOIA Advisor

Q&A (2017)

Q&As: Simply yes or no

Q&A (2017)Allan BlutsteinComment

Q.  Is information compiled by the "FARM SERVICE AGENCY (FSA)" of the United States Department of Agriculture available to the public through the FOIA?

A.  Yes.  Records controlled by the FAS are subject to FOIA.  Here is the agency's electronic request form.


Q.   Can I file a FOIA [in Virginia] to obtain records from a Property Management LLC?

A.   No.  The state statute does not apply to such private companies. 


Q.   If you are not a taxpayer of a government body [in Illinois], can you still ask for minutes and financials reports from a government body?

A.   Yes.  Anyone may submit a request for records maintained by a state or local agency in Illinois; residency is irrelevant.   A few States do have residency requirements -- for example, Tennessee, Virginia, Delaware, Alabama, and Arkansas -- but not Illinois.     


Q.  Can I make a Freedom of Information request to a non-profit organization [in Massachusetts] if they failed to provide a resolution to my complaint against my boss? The investigation is over, but I would like copies of the complete investigation because they did not give me any resolution and it's been since November 2016.

A.  No.  Freedom of information laws generally apply to governmental entities, not private entities like non-profit organizations.  For further information about the Massachusetts Public Records Law, here is guidance published by the Attorney General of Massachusetts.


Q.   If I request a calendar of a public official [in Illinois], am I entitled to the entire calendar or is the official allowed to redact the information in the calendar before releasing the information?

A.   Yes, the calendar of an elected state official may be redacted if a statutory exemption applies.  For further information, you may wish to browse the FOIA website of the Illinois Attorney General. 

Q&A: Ex-husband's military pension

Q&A (2017)Ryan MulveyComment

Q.  I am the former wife of an Air Force serviceman.  After we divorced in 1984, I was awarded 40% of his military retirement pension.  Where can I find the amount of his monthly pension cheque?  I'm concerned because there hasn't be an increase in the money I'm receiving for over five years.  I sent my documentation to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service ("DFAS"), but to no avail.  Their advice was to contact the FOIA office, which I did about a month ago by email.  I still haven't received a response.

A.  You may want to consult the DFAS's FOIA website to make sure that you filed your request in accordance with the agency's procedures.  You should have at least received an acknowledgment of receipt by now.  Consider re-filing your request or contacting the DFAS FOIA staff.  Contact information for the FOIA public liaison officer is available here.   Be advised that some records pertaining to your ex-husband's pension may be protected by the Privacy Act and, therefore, may not be available for public disclosure.  If you still have trouble getting the information you need, you may want to consider seeking the advice of a lawyer who specializes in divorce law.

Q&A: Proof of back pay

Q&A (2017)Ryan MulveyComment

Q.  I filed a complaint with the Department of Labor regarding unpaid overtime wages.  After an investigation, the agency determined that I was actually due the unpaid overtime but decided not to pursue recovery on my behalf.  I asked the DOL for the total amount of wages due, but my contact refused to send me the information and directed me to the FOIA.  What does the FOIA have to do with obtaining my own personal records?

A.  The FOIA governs access to agency records, including anything created by the DOL during its investigation into your unpaid overtime.  While those records are about you, they are not, in fact, your "personal" records, at least not in the sense that you "own" them.  Consider visiting the DOL Wage and Hour Division's FOIA website, which has useful information about how to request copies of your investigative file.  Pay special attention to Privacy Act requirements, however, as a request for personal information needs a special statement attesting that you are who you claim to be.


Q&A: Over the river and through the woods

Q&A (2017)Allan BlutsteinComment

Q.  My grandmother died 8 months ago and I want to know if I can find her record.

A.  The federal government does not maintain a single repository of records from which it can search for documents on any individual.  Rather, federal agencies maintain separate systems of records.  Therefore, if you wish to locate records about your grandmother from the federal government, you first must figure out which agency might maintain records about her -- for example, U.S. Customs and Immigrations Services, Social Security Administration, etc.  See the website for guidance on how to submit a FOIA request.  For maximum access, you will need to include evidence of your grandmother's death with your request.  

Q&A: Uncharitable boss?

Q&A (2017)Allan BlutsteinComment

Q.  Can I make a freedom of Information request to a non-profit organization [in Massachusetts] if they failed to provide a resolution to my complaint against my boss?  The investigation is over, but I would like copies of the complete investigation because they did not give me any resolution.

A.  The Public Records Law in Massachusetts applies to records created or obtained by government entities. Therefore, the records you seek do not appear to be subject to a PRL request.  For further information, you might wish to review A Guide to the Massachusetts Public Records Law issued by the Secretary of the Commonwealth.  

Q&A: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer

Q&A (2017)Allan BlutsteinComment

Q.  Am I able to file a FOIA to find out who submitted one on me?

A.  Yes.  Courts have held that FOIA requesters have no general expectations of privacy regarding their identities. Therefore, you may request an agency's FOIA "log" that lists each request received, and/or seek copies of the relevant requests themselves.  Note that personal information about a FOIA requester, such as a home address or telephone number, is likely to withheld.  

Q&A: Snap out of it

Q&A (2017)Allan BlutsteinComment

Q.  Why would I be contacted by the USDA letting me know that info has been requested regarding my Food and Nutrition Services sales for my store and will be released to the general public?  I'm dumbfounded.

A.  In November 2016, a federal court ruled that USDA was required under FOIA to release the annual sales amounts that retailers earn by participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  Here is one of several news articles that summarizes the court's decision.  

Q&A: Milling about for settlement records

Q&A (2017)Ryan MulveyComment

Q.  The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) traded a parcel of land with me that I believe the agency knew to be contaminated. The land in question is an old mill site in Montana.  USFS never disclosed that the site was contaminated. Interestingly, USFS and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) settled with Unocal/Chevron to pay clean up costs for other contaminated mill sites in the same area.  Is there a way to request information about those settlement discussions so that I can use the same material to try and get a clean-up deal for my land?

A.  Records concerning settlement discussions would likely be exempt from disclosure on a number of grounds.  First, while there isn't a settled consensus as to its application in the FOIA context, some courts have recognized a "settlement negotiations" privilege that could conceivably be used by an agency in conjunction with Exemption 5. Internal agency communications and related records about settlement could also independently qualify for withholding under the deliberative process or attorney work-product privileges.  Finally, these records could be protected under Exemption 4 as containing privileged or confidential commercial or financial information belonging to Unocal/Chevron.

All that being said, you may still want to try filing a FOIA request.  USFS has instructions available online, as does the EPA.

Q&A: Of Mice and Exterminators

Q&A (2017)Ryan MulveyComment

Q.  I recently sent an e-mail to an agency to request a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) related to an extermination problem and a planned clean-up.  Is the right to request an MSDS the same as the right to request records under the FOIA, or do I need a special form?

A.  No, the right to request a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) is not the same as the right to access agency records under the FOIA.  The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate the “right to know” about hazardous chemicals.  Under OSHA rules, manufacturers of hazardous materials are required to provide SDSs for their products to downstream commercial vendors and distributors.  These entities must then provide the SDSs to their employees.  Generally speaking, any employer (including a federal agency) would be required to provide its employees with "ready access" to SDSs in the workplace.  There is no standardized form to request a SDS.  You can read OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard, 29 C.F.R. sec. 1910.1200, online.  The agency has also published a brief on the topic.

If you are not an employee of the agency in question, or if you want a SDS for a hazardous material that is being used by a private enterprise, you probably do not have a right of "ready access," let alone a right to immediate access "upon request."  The agency may still respond to your e-mail, but you could also file a FOIA request.  So long as the agency has a copy of the SDS, you should eventually receive it.  Alternatively, you may consider requesting the SDS directly from the manufacturer, though it is not required to respond to you.

Q&A: If you want to sing out, sing out.

Q&A (2017)Allan BlutsteinComment

Q.  The Department of Defense provided me with redacted documents in response to my FOIA request for a a Hotline Completion Report.  My question is whether I may now legally share the information with entities outside of the federal government, including public interest groups and the media. 

A.  Yes, you may do whatever you wish with records received via FOIA; there are no restrictions.