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FOIA Lawsuits Reach Highest Level Recorded in 25 Years

by FOIA Project Staff on May 23rd, 2017

The latest available case-by-case records from the federal courts show that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits challenging the withholding of records have risen since President Trump assumed office. The number of recorded FOIA filings in April climbed to 63 – the highest level recorded for at least 25 years. And although the month is not complete, additional filings during May appear headed even higher with 60 new FOIA lawsuits already filed.

If the pace of FOIA filings during the first seven-plus months of this fiscal year continues at the same rate, FY 2017 will see upwards of 579 FOIA suits filed. This would be up from 512 such suits filed during the last fiscal year of the Obama Administration.

requests_changeFigure 1. FOIA Lawsuits Filed in Federal District Court by Fiscal Year

Note that FOIA filings tend to exhibit considerable month-to-month variability. Thus, actual totals based on records covering the entire year could well turn out to be higher or lower. These results to date are based on case-by-case court records compiled and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University for the FOIA Project.

What Kinds of Records Are Being Sought?

There is amazing diversity in the topics covered in cases filed thus far this year. Front and center were a substantial number of public interest organizations that brought FOIA suits seeking records on particular government policies or actions. Others were filed by individuals, reporters, and news outlets seeking records that shed light on government activities. Information sought included records on President Trump’s executive orders, warrant applications for conducting surveillance, actions by the new EPA administrator, internal agency communications concerning China at the State Department, operation of the CIA’s twitter account, and border searches conducted by the DHS. Other examples covered records on the missile attack on Syria, the raid in Yemen, eligibility for the Trusted Traveler Program, obligations to taxpayers under the Affordable Care Act, and the federal coal program.

Not all suits involved matters that were in the news. Some suits were filed by individuals seeking records to aid them in disputes they were personally having with a federal agency. Corporations also went to court to obtain records concerning procurement contracts, and other business matters. Coca Cola, for example, sued the IRS for records to help in the examination of its taxes. And the Trustees of Princeton University filed a reverse-FOIA seeking to prevent the disclosure of records held by the Department of Education.

Each week the FOIA project posts a rundown describing new FOIA cases filed over the last seven days. Full details on each particular case, including the complaint filed in that action, are also available on using the “Lawsuit Search” tool.

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