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Sorenson Law Office is a law firm that limits its practice to matters under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). C. Peter Sorenson, attorney at law, is the principal of the firm. Mr. Sorenson has been a lawyer for over 30 years and has dedicated his law practice exclusively to FOIA. He is licensed to practice law in Washington, D.C. and Oregon.
Most of the firm’s legal work is centered on representing clients nationwide on FOIA matters, whether they are requests, administrative appeals, or litigation. The firm regularly represents clients in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, where Mr. Sorenson regularly litigates FOIA cases.
Mr. Sorenson is licensed by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and the Supreme Court of the United States of America. He is a 1982 graduate of the University of Oregon School of Law and was awarded a Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.D.) degree.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law, passed over 50 years ago, which allows anyone in the world the right to request records from the United States federal government. There is no specific method for making a FOIA request, only that it must be in writing. It is common for individuals and nonprofit organizations to make their requests via a federal government website. For more information, visit www.FOIA.gov – the government’s primary website for FOIA.
We have represented journalists, nonprofits, individuals, and businesses in making FOIA requests. Examples:
- Records — held by the United States Environmental Protection Agency — of testing a particular type of air pollution reduction equipment.
- Records — held by the United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management — pertaining to a specific aspect of the Wild Horse and Burro Act.
- Records — held by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — concerning small business loan assistance for U.S. military veterans.
- Records — held by the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service — concerning certain aspects of the National Organic Program.
- Records — held by the U.S. Coast Guard — concerning a specific marine incident investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard.
- Records — held by the U.S. Department of the Navy, Marine Corps — concerning a specific incident investigated by military police with the U.S. Marine Corps.
- Records –held by the United States Department of Labor — concerning deaths at military bases.
- Records — held by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — concerning methods of payment for damages from a hurricane.
- Records — held by the U.S. Army — concerning a specific personal injury on an Army base.
There are several distinct steps in the FOIA process:
The first involves a written request to a federal agency.
After the request is received, the government agency normally responds with a tracking number.
The agency has 20 working days (excluding federal holidays, Saturdays, and Sundays) to produce the records requested.
If the agency does not respond or does not supply the nonexempt responsive records within 20 working days, the requester has a right to sue in federal court. If some or all of the records are produced, the federal agency notifies the requester that they have a specific time to administratively appeal. That administrative appeal must be filed within the time stated by the agency (agencies have the authority to set the deadline, but it’s usually 45 or 60 days).
If the agency does not decide on the administrative appeal within 20 working days, the requester can sue in federal court.
If the agency is sued in the federal court in Washington, D.C., the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, typically represents the agency, which becomes the defendant in the case and the requester becomes the plaintiff. The judge in the case eventually makes a decision on what records will be released, dismisses the case, or the parties agree on a resolution of the case.
Requests must be in writing, state that it’s a request under the Freedom of Information Act, must be directed against a federal agency, and must include your name, address, and other contact information. It can be made by an individual, corporation or nonprofit organization or by an attorney for any person. If you’re requesting a waiver of search fees, you should indicate this, and give good reasons for why the waiver is proper.
FOIA assumes that there are going to be costs associated with searching for the records you’re seeking. These search fees are paid by the request, except there are exceptions to that general rule. The first exception is if the federal agency doesn’t provides the records within the 20 day time period. The second exception is if the requester can show that the disclosure of the records is in the public interest. Requesters must show that disclosure is likely to “contribute significantly to operations or activities of government” and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.
One of the most important aspects of FOIA is the administrative appeals process. If a federal agency decides that records must be produced or must partially be produced, that decision can be appealed – not to a court but an administrative appeals officer. This person works for the department of the agency which made the decision, but they aren’t a federal judge. It’s important to realize that FOIA is an administrative law: the agency is supposed to respond to requests and if those requests are denied or the records are redacted, then there’s an administrative process to resolve these things. You must exhaust your administrative rights before going to federal court. The administrative appeals process can be completed without a lawyer, although lawyers are allowed to participate in this process. It usually involves writing a multi-page appeal and there is no oral argument.
There are several ways a requester can go to federal court. The first is when the request is made and there is no response by the federal agency. That process requires the expiration of the 20 day period. The second is 20 working days after an administrative appeal is filed or after an administrative appeal is decided
For our law firm, federal litigation starts with the electronic filing of a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, and a request for a summons on the federal defendant. After the service of the complaint and summons on the federal agency, U.S. Attorney General, and U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, the federal agency has 30 days to answer. Litigation can be used to force the agency to justify its exemptions and redactions to requested records.
One of the things that prevents individuals and nonprofit groups from seeking legal advice on FOIA matters is the fear that attorney fees will be too high. Another fear of potential clients is that it will be impossible to navigate the federal government’s FOIA process. To take some of the fear out of this process, we offer a free initial consultation.
FOIA has nine exemptions. Congress decided that the records need not be disclosed, although agencies have the discretion to release these records if they want to use that discretion.
FOIA practitioners discuss the exemptions by the number that they are given in the statute itself:
Exemption 1 – National Security
Exemption 2 – Internal Agency Rules
Exemption 3 – Information Exempted by Other Statutes
Exemption 4 – Business Information
Exemption 5 – Inter and Intra Agency Memoranda
Exemption 6 – Personal Privacy
Exemption 7 – Law Enforcement Records
Exemption 8 – Records of Financial Institutions
Exemption 9 – Oil Well Data
If you’re a nonprofit or journalist, there are special rules for you on attorney fees. Depending upon your case, we may be able to represent you on a “fee shift” basis.
Search Fee Waiver
Do you volunteer or work for a nonprofit organization, whether or not it has received tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service under 501 (c)(3)? Are you an environmental activist, scientist, writer, blogger, or author? Are you researching a book or article?
If so, you may have special rights under FOIA. You have greater chances of obtaining search fee waivers, particularly if you describe – in your request – how you’ve used information in the past, how you’ve distributed information in the past, and how you’d do that with the records you obtained from your present FOIA request.
Fee Shift on Attorney Fees
Also, if you’ve had difficulty obtaining records from a federal agency, you may have additional rights to obtain the attorney “fee shift.” This means, in appropriate cases, you could have an attorney represent you, and the fees – if any – would be paid by the government.