EPA Loses Federal Court Challenge on FOIA Public Records: SLF Seven-Year Battle Vindicated
EPA’s PUBLIC RECORD STONEWALLING SLAMMED BY FEDERAL COURT
ATLANTA, GA/April 13, 2016: Southeastern Legal Foundation won its seven-year battle for records related to greenhouse gases and the EPA’s annual Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reports. Over the course of six years, SLF submitted three FOIA requests to the EPA: 1) seeking records related to the timing, public comments and financial implications of the Endangerment Findings; 2) seeking records related to grants related to anthropogenic climate change issued or denied by the EPA; and 3) the raw statistical data underlying the EPA’s Annual FOIA Reports for specified years. In 2015, after the EPA continuously stonewalled SLF’s efforts to access the public records, SLF went to federal district court to challenge the EPA’s failure to meet its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.
In late March, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia granted two of SLF’s three motions for summary judgment and ordered the EPA to produce records responsive to SLF’s FOIA requests at no cost to SLF. With respect to the third motion for summary judgment, after receiving a log of the EPA’s redactions, SLF determined that it no longer needed the redacted information and voluntarily abandoned those claims.
In granting SLF’s requests for fee waivers, the district court slammed the EPA for denying SLF’s fee waiver request in the first place, stating that “it is not difficult to discern a basis for SLF’s assertion of a substantial public interest in the information” and explaining that “it is difficult to imagine a more hot-button topic than the public’s interest in and heated reaction for or against the government’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.”
The district court balked at the EPA’s argument that it did not need to produce any records about its controversial “Endangerment Findings,” which served as the justification for the rules which were ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. In doing so, the court stated that the promulgation of an administrative rule “does not obviate the informative value” of related information, setting important precedent for the Northern District of Georgia. The district court also slammed the EPA for its refusal to make any attempt at obtaining agency records allegedly held by an agency contractor and ordered it to take all reasonable steps to obtain the requested records.
SLF's win is important for reasons that far exceed the knowledge to be gained from the responsive records EPA must now produce. It creates strong legal precedent for the grant of SLF's fee waiver requests which SLF can rely on in future FOIA requests and related litigation.
But even more important is the message it sends to the EPA - while it may be able to play its games and delay or deny production of records in other jurisdictions, the Northern District of Georgia will not stand by and allow the agency to refuse to produce responsive records or deny fee waivers when there is a clear and obvious public interest. SLF will be able to rely on the Court's order and lessons learned from its successful litigation in future FOIA requests to the EPA and other federal agencies – a clear win for accountable government advocates.