American Oversight on Friday sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services over the agency’s illegal practice of rejecting valid Freedom of Information Act requests — including for documents related to the coronavirus pandemic.
American Oversight has submitted multiple FOIA requests to the CDC for records of urgent importance related to the pandemic, but the agency has engaged in a practice of improperly claiming that reasonably described requests are “overly broad.” Friday’s lawsuit asked the court to order the CDC to comply with the law and highlights the significant issues we have experienced in attempting to get the CDC to process requests, issues that have led to unnecessary and inappropriate delays.
“At a time when public disclosures are especially critical, the CDC has systematically obstructed the public’s right to information about the coronavirus pandemic,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight. “The CDC must abandon the obstacles it has erected against transparency and lean into its responsibility to honest, timely disclosures.”
Records requested include communications between the White House and the CDC, documents regarding virus testing, and any coronavirus-related directives. Under law, federal agencies must complete searches for FOIA requests that are “reasonably described.” Since FOIA was created under the assumption that there’s an imbalance of information and expertise between agencies and members of the public, FOIA requests don’t need to be written exactly as an agency expert might craft them to be valid. As long as an agency can grasp what a FOIA requester is seeking, the agency has an obligation to search for records regardless of how the request was phrased or the number of potentially responsive pages.
But in response, the CDC has shirked its legal obligations by groundlessly rejecting requests that it deems overly broad. The agency’s refusal to adequately respond to these requests is part of a broader trend of agencies failing to uphold their legal obligations under FOIA during the pandemic. On May 12, the editorial board of the New York Times published an op-ed defending the importance of the Freedom of Information Act and state open records laws, particularly during times of crisis. The article references separate litigation brought by American Oversight against HHS and the Food and Drug Administration for failing to respond to FOIA requests.
“American Oversight can force the government to respond to FOIA requests by going to court when we need to,” continued Evers. “But most Americans don’t have the time or resources to enforce their FOIA rights through litigation. That’s why this case matters, and it’s why we’re asking the court to make it clear to the CDC that denying reasonably described FOIA requests is illegal. If the court agrees with us, it will help ensure that, especially during times of crisis, FOIA works for the people it’s meant to serve: the American public.”
American Oversight has filed more than 400 public records requests with federal and state government agencies to investigate the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus. This is the fifth lawsuit filed by American Oversight as part of that effort. More information on our investigation, the records we’ve received, and a comprehensive list of our coronavirus-related public records requests are available here.
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