American Oversight has reached an important settlement agreement in a lawsuit filed against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over the agency’s illegal practice of rejecting valid Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
The settlement includes a requirement that the CDC send an instructional email to all FOIA staff regarding the improper rejection of requests as “overly broad” — a claim the agency used to deny several of American Oversight’s requests related to the pandemic in 2020.
In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, American Oversight filed several FOIA requests for records related to the government’s response, including communications between the Trump White House and the CDC, documents regarding testing, and any related directives. The CDC improperly rejected several of those requests for being “overly broad,” highlighting significant problems with the agency’s FOIA practices and prompting American Oversight to file suit in May 2020.
Following negotiations, the CDC agreed to send an email to its FOIA staff instructing them to find requests overly broad “only when appropriate.” Most importantly, the email reminds CDC FOIA staff that they should focus primarily on whether the request “reasonably describes” the records sought rather than on the volume of records retrieved by a search. American Oversight provided significant input on the content of the email, which included links to resources discussing the importance of properly responding to FOIA requests and communicating with requesters.
“If you have questions about whether a request may be overly broad, you should seek advice from leadership/supervisors before sending the letter to ensure all angles of the request have been considered,” the email stated.
In addition to sending the instructional email to FOIA staff, the CDC agreed to pay a portion of the legal costs and fees that American Oversight incurred throughout the lawsuit. Read more about American Oversight’s efforts to promote government transparency here.