Supreme Court Rejects FOIA Restrictions

In a rare Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) decision, the Supreme Court recently held in Taylor v. Sturgell that an individual's failed FOIA request does not preclude similar requests from related individuals. In doing so, the court rejected the legal doctrine of "virtual representation," which would have prevented a FOIA requestor from seeking judicial relief if he had a "close relationship" with a party who had previously litigated the same FOIA request.

The dispute began in 1997, when antique-airplane enthusiast Greg Herrick filed a FOIA request with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seeking specifications for the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation's F-45 airplane. Herrick intended to use the specs to aid him in restoring his own vintage F-45. The FAA denied the request on the dubious ground that the specs for the circa 1930s aircraft qualified for FOIA's "trade secrets" exemption (see 5 U.S.C. ยง 552(b)(4)). Herrick filed suit against the FAA in Wyoming federal court, but the court agreed with the FAA's trade secrets rationale.

Brent Taylor, who was not a party to Herrick's case, filed his own FOIA request for the same F-45 records less than a month after the Tenth Circuit released its decision on Herrick's appeal. Following the FAA's denial of his request, Taylor filed suit in Washington, D.C. Though Taylor admitted that Herrick, his friend, had asked for his help in restoring the F-45, Taylor said he filed his FOIA request in order to make the specs available to the public and to preserve antique aircraft heritage. The D.C. court granted summary judgment against Taylor, citing the doctrine of "virtual representation." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed.

"Virtual representation" is an expansion of res judicata, which precludes parties from litigating claims and facts that previously have been settled in court. Res judicata typically does not apply to an individual -- such as Taylor -- who was not a party to the original case, under the principle that every individual should have her day in court. There are some exceptions to the general rule against non-party preclusion, most notably where the non-party has a pre-existing legal relationship with an original party. Virtual representation would lower the bar of res judicata by extending it to individuals who have a "close relationship" with an original party.

Taylor then appealed to the Supreme Court, which vacated the apellate decision and explicitly disapproved of the concept of "virtual representation." Justice Ginsburg's majority opinion cited the "deep-rooted historic tradition" against non-party claim preclusion, noting that none of the six exceptions to this general rule supported "virtual representation." While a pre-existing legal relationship between Taylor and Herrick may have precluded Taylor's claim, for instance, their other connections did not. The Court remanded the case for consideration of whether Taylor fit within any remaining exceptions.

The decision bodes well for FOIA requestors as it preserves the right of every citizen to have their chance to request a record -- or, in legal terms, to have their day in court. The court's holding allows subsequent requestors to file their own requests, preventing them from being bound by denials that arose because of faults in previous requests. However, it is worth noting that this decision is not limited to FOIA. It presumably will kill off "virtual representation" as a doctrine of claim preclusion in non-FOIA cases as well, removing a potential obstacle to citizens' ability to have their day in court on a wide range of issues.

In addition to the procedural arguments, the Supreme Court's decision also is the correct result under FOIA itself. FOIA does not require requestors to state the reason for their request or to offer any identifying information aside from their name and contact information. It's hard to imagine how an agency could properly deny a request based upon information that isn't relevant under FOIA in the first place.

For more information on the case, you can read more about the case at SCOTUSblog's great new Supreme Court wiki. The wiki contains summaries of each stage of the case's history, a full set of briefs -- including amicus and certiorari briefs -- and links to outside discussions of the case. It seems SCOTUSblog plans to maintain a comprehensive page for every case the Court hears from now on, so it's worth a bookmark for future use. The site currently covers the full run of cases from 2007 and is being filled in with information on this year's decisions.

(Matt C. Sanchez is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School and the CMLP's Legal Threats Editor.)

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