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Freedom of Information Act (Federal) Research Guide

This guide discusses how to use the federal Freedom of Information Act , 5 U.S.C. 552, to obtain records from federal government agencies when those records are not published in the Federal Register or distributed by the Government Printing Office.

Making a FOIA Request

1. Verify that the Records in Question Cannot Be Obtained by Another Method.

FOIA requests take considerable time to process and can be expensive, since the requester must usually pay the costs of the document search and copying. Many agency documents have already been offered for sale as government documents, published in the Federal Register, posted on agency web sites, or included in commercial publications or database services. Therefore, before you make a FOIA request you should exhaust more traditional research methods. An excellent place to start is with the agency's Electronic FOIA Reading Room; the Federal Government's FOIA web siteprovides a list of those reading rooms, with links. You might also want to ask a reference librarian for help identifying commercial sources of records.

2. Identify the Appropriate Agency FOIA Contact(s).

Each federal agency subject to FOIA has an officer responsible for handling FOIA requests. Cabinet level departments such as Defense and Treasury, have separate FOIA officers for their various subdivisions and regional offices. For example, the IRS is an agency within the Department of the Treasury, and the IRS and Department of Treasury each have their own FOIA officer. If you know for certain which subdivision or agency within a department has the records you want, send your request letter directly to that agency's FOIA officer. If you're not sure, it may be a good idea to send your request to both FOIA officers. Rebecca Daugherty, ed., How to Use the Federal FOI Act 5 (9th ed. 2004). The Government's FOIA.gov website maintains a list of agencies with contact information for their FOIA officers (including mailing addresses).

3. Research the Agency's FOIA Regulations and Fees.

Every federal agency makes its own FOIA regulations. Before you write your FOIA request, take a little time to familiarize yourself with the regulations of the agency from whom you will be requesting records, especially their fee schedule and procedures for granting expedited review of qualifying requests. For help finding agency-specific FOIA regulations, see the "Administrative Materials & Regulations" section of this guide. Many agencies also post their fee schedules in their electronic FOIA reading rooms.

4. Write the Request Letter.

The letter does not have to be complicated, and each of the handbooks and treatises listed belowincludes sample request letters. Many agencies also include form request letters on their main FOIA home pages (see the list of agency FOIA contacts).

The request should be made in hard copy (not by email or telephone) and clearly labeled as a Freedom of Information Act request. At a minimum, the request should include

  • your contact information
  • a description of the records requested (including subject matter)
  • an offer to pay reasonable charges for actual search time and for photocopies
  • a statement setting an upper limit on the amount of money you are willing to pay for the agency's response, and
  • a request for response within 20 working days (the statutory deadline absent "unusual circumstances").

Keep in mind that the more specific your description of the records you seek, the more likely you are to get what you want. In addition to the minimum contents already suggested, your request could include a request that the agency contact you to verify your willingness to pay fees above the upper fee limit you set, a request for a fee waiver, and/or a request for expedited review.

If you decide to request a fee waiver, be aware that individual agencies promulgate their own regulations for determining when such waivers are appropriate. For help finding these regulations, see the "Administrative Materials & Regulations" section of this guide.

Statutory grounds for expedited review include (1) imminent threat to the life or safety of an individual and (2), when the requester is a reporter, an urgent need to inform the public about actual or alleged federal government activity. Agencies may promulgate regulations setting forth other reasons for expedited review. To support a request for expedited review, you should include a description of the circumstances that you feel entitle you to such a review, and certify that your reasons for requesting such a review are true and correct to the best of your knowledge and belief. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(E)(v) & (vi); Rebecca Daugherty, ed., How to Use the Federal FOI Act 7 (9th ed. 2004).

5. The Agency's Response.

By statute, the agency is required to grant or deny FOIA requests within 20 working days, except "in unusual circumstances." In the event of "unusual circumstances," an agency may extend the deadline for a decision by sending written notice to the requester that includes the new deadline and a statement of the circumstances that make the extension appropriate. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(B). "Unusual circumstances" means (1) the need to search and collect documents from offices separate from the office processing the request; (2) the need to search and collect a large volume of records; or (3) the need to consult with another agency (or a separate subdvision of the same agency) having a substantial subject-matter interest in the request. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(B)(iii).

If you requested expedited review, the agency must grant or deny you faster processing within 10 days of the date of the request. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(E)(ii).

If the agency denies your FOIA request, it must tell you the reasons for the denial and notify you of your right to make an appeal. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(i). The agency must also make a reasonable effort to estimate the volume of any requested materials which it has declined to provide, unless providing such an estimate would harm an interest protected by an exemption under which the denial is made. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(F).

6. Appeals.

Administrative appeals are typically made to the head of the agency involved within 30 days of a request's denial. However, each agency promulgates its own regulations related to appeal procedures. For help finding these regulations, see the "Administrative Materials & Regulations" section of this guide. Sample appeal letters can be found in each of the handbooks and treatises discussedbelow.

If your administrative appeal is denied, or if the agency doesn't respond to your appeal within 20 days, you may file a FOIA lawsuit in the federal district court "in the district in which the complainant resides, or has his principal place of business, or in which the agency records are situated, or in the District of Columbia...." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). The court will review the agency's decision de novo. Id. For more information on FOIA lawsuits, including sample complaints, see items 2 through 4 under the Handbooks and Treatises section of this guide.