FOIA Advisor

Q&A: scope of FOIA and unsealing court records

Q&A (2015-16)Allan BlutsteinComment

Q.   Does the FOIA apply to only government documents? What if I am trying to get court records of a settlement unsealed -- what are the criteria for unsealing those records? Can I force a private entity to produce documents if those documents pertain to public safety? For example, if there has been testing by a private entity pertaining to water and soil safety of an area, must those records be produced under the FOIA if a request is made to that entity to produce those documents?

A.  The federal Freedom of Information Act applies to executive branch agencies, not courts, Congress, or private entities or individuals.  The scope of State public records laws vary, but most also do not apply to court records or to private entities.  You might be able to access sealed court records by making an informal request to the judge, as discussed in this article by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.  More extensive guidance on sealed court records is available from the Federal Judicial Center.