Our most frequently asked questions are below. Click on each question to display the answer.
Q: What is FOIA?
FOIA is a federal law that is now over 50 years old. It allows individuals, groups, businesses and any person – worldwide –to request records from the federal government agencies. FOIA provides that federal agencies have 20 days to provide records. The term “FOIA” can also be used as a verb, meaning that you have “FOIAed” an agency, in other words you have submitted a request.
Q: What is your background?
I’m an attorney, who has been licensed to practice law since 1982. I’ve worked as a legislative assistant in the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., worked as special assistant to a U.S. cabinet member in Washington, D.C., worked as a prosecutor, been chair of the board of Lane Community College, worked in private practice as a trial lawyer and environmental lawyer, and I’ve served as a state senator. My law practice is limited to representing clients with interests in the Freedom of Information Act, primarily in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, which is located in Washington, D.C.
Q: What are the steps in the FOIA process?
FOIA has several distinct periods:
- A request is made.
- The federal agency provides a tracking number.
- The federal agency makes a “release of non-exempt responsive records” and a final determination.
- There is an opportunity to challenge the final determination in an administrative appeal;
- Lastly there are opportunities to seek review of the agency’s decisions in federal court.
Q. You mentioned Federal agency several times. What’s a Federal agency under FOIA?
A federal agency consists of a federal government’s major departments, administrations, and bureaus. FOIA excluded the federal courts, president, vice president, and congress, but pretty much every agency of the executive branch of the federal government is a federal agency.
Q. How much does it cost to make a Request under FOIA?
A request under FOIA is free to the requester and the request can be delivered by U.S. Mail or by finding the appropriate website and completing the request online. For information on specific federal agencies and how to submit an online request, please visit: https://www.foia.gov/report-makerequest.html
Q. What‘s included and what’s not included in FOIA?
All non-exempt responsive records are records that can be requested. If the records are exempted from release, then the public ordinarily can’t get those.
Q. What’s exempt from disclosure?
Exemptions are specifically outlined in FOIA. See our discussion of exemptions in the section on exemptions.
Q. I made a FOIA request, but I never heard back from the agency. What can I do?
We ordinarily suggest that you make a polite inquiry and ask for the “estimated completion date of the release of non-exempt responsive records.” After that, you should consider litigation.
Q. I got records from my FOIA request but the agency left out a bunch or records and they redacted or "blacked out" portions of the records they sent. What can I do?
If the response also included a “final determination” you should administratively appeal. Normally you have 60 days to make your appeal.
Q. What is an administrative appeal?
It is typically a two or three-page letter, in which the requester is asking an agency to change the decision of the agency about redactions and application of exemption law.
Q. Why can’t I just go to court and have a judge decide my case?
You can only go to court if you have exhausted your administrative remedies. You can’t sue an agency on the 19th day, because FOIA says agencies have 20 days. You can’t sue an agency if you have not administratively appealed.
Q. In your website you’ve used the term "record" or "records". What does the term record mean?
A record can be many things. It includes: document, report, photograph, database, chart, map, letter, email, phone log, basically anything that’s already been created and something you can see and touch.
Q. What are the biggest misconceptions you’ve observed about FOIA?
Two big misconceptions:
- Some people think that federal agencies must give them exactly what they want. That’s just not true. Some people think that they are entitled to “information” held by federal agencies. That’s not really true, either, in that federal agencies must release non-exempt responsive records but federal agencies don’t have to write up or construct records that satisfy a requester’s request. If there’s no record, there’s no record.
- The second major misconception is that a nonprofit or journalist has to be backed by big money to bring this type of litigation. On the contrary, the majority of our clients are modestly funded organizations or journalists who obtain our services because of fee shifting.
Q. How can I reach you?
C. Peter Sorenson
Sorenson Law Office
PO Box 10836
Eugene, Oregon 97440
Q. Why do you do this work?
I enjoy helping people and demystfying the FOIA process. Society works better when more people have more information.