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Sorenson Law Office is a law firm which 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, DC and Oregon.
Most of the firm’s legal work is centered representing clients nationwide on FOIA matters, whether they are requests or administrative appeals or litigation. The firm regularly represents client in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, where he 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 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 USA federal government. There is no specific method for making a FOIA request, only that it must be in writing. It’s common for individuals and nonprofit organizations make their requests via a Federal government website.
We have represented journalists, nonprofits, individuals, and businesses in making FOIA requests.:
- 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 the 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 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, DC, 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 non profit organization or by an attorney for any person. If you’re requesting a waiver of search fees, you should so state and give good reasons for why the waiver is proper.
FOIA assumes that there 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 they 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 int he commercial interest of the requester.
One of the most important aspects of FOIA is the administrative appeals process. If a Federal agency makes a determination that records must be produced or must partially be produced, that decision can be appealed — not to a court but to 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 prior to 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 multipage 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 expiration of the 20 day period The second is 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 keeps individuals and not for profit groups from seeking legal advice on FOIA matters is the fear that attorney fees will be too high and 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 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
FOIA allows Federal agencies to withhold from public disclosure “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.”
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. Fee shift means that, in appropriate situations, the government — not you — will pay the attorney fees.