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FOIA lawsuits up 26 percent in Trump's first year

Posted: Jan. 18, 2018 | Tags: FOIA, The FOIA Project, Freedom of Information

Nearly a year since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the number of lawsuits filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has hit an all time high — up 26 percent from fiscal year 2016. 

FOIA lawsuits may be filed if a federal agency denies a request for information or fails to respond to a request within 20 working days.  

During fiscal year 2017, which began Oct. 1, 2016, 651 cases were filed, according to a report released Wednesday by The FOIA Project. News media and nonprofit organizations played a significant role in the increase of these lawsuits.

The FOIA Project, a program of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, tracks data on FOIA lawsuits and reports trends in FOIA litigation. 

So far, the long-term trend is upward, said Susan Long, co-director of TRAC. “What we saw was that nonprofit’s [FOIA lawsuits are] just increasing and increasing.”

An earlier report, released in July by the FOIA Project, also found a jump in FOIA lawsuits from nonprofit organizations and news media. Long said that news media FOIA suits didn’t increase until the later years of the Obama administration.

This week’s report shows that the number of FOIA lawsuits has increased 70 percent over the last five years. At just under 900 cases, the backlog of pending FOIA lawsuits continues to grow.  

The U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security have maintained their top rank as the agencies sued most often under FOIA, according to the report. The number of cases filed against the Justice Department went up 20 percent from 164 cases to 197 cases. Homeland Security saw a 46 percent increase from 67 cases to 98 cases.

The report also points out a few notable federal agencies that saw a significant increase in the number of FOIA lawsuits in 2017. These agencies often were government offices in charge of areas where there was heightened public concern, according to the FOIA Project.

The number of lawsuits filed against the Environment Protection Agency went from 10 to 35. The Executive Office of the President/Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Education both saw a jumped from 3 cases to 13 cases in 2017.

Over the last few years, the number of denials of information by the federal government has gone up and has lead to more lawsuits in 2017, said Adam Marshall, the Knight Foundation Litigation Attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“I have to think that reflects some kind of increased frustration on the part of FOIA requesters again either as to information being withheld or agencies not responding in a timely way,” he said.

Both Long and Marshall noted that the increase in FOIA litigation costs time and money for everyone involved, including taxpayers. 

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