Update – Pattern and Practice Lawsuit: Fighting EPA’s Incorrect FOIA Denials

American Oversight today filed a motion for summary judgment in our case against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the agency’s practice of wrongly rejecting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. We’re asking the court to order the EPA to stop its pattern of denying FOIA requests it would rather not respond to by claiming the requests aren’t “reasonably described.”

Last June, we submitted three FOIAs to the EPA seeking a variety of emails to and from Administrator Scott Pruitt. The EPA denied all three of our requests, incorrectly claiming that we needed to provide the agency with more detailed search criteria. This is a response that American Oversight and other members of the public have seen repeatedly from the EPA, and so this past February we went to court to fight back.

Under law, 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.

All three of our June FOIAs to the EPA asked for communications, an uncomplicated request that the agency should have had no difficulty understanding. Our first FOIA requested emails between Pruitt and his top EPA advisors; the second sought emails between Pruitt and his staff and outside groups; and the third targeted emails between Pruitt and his staff and members of Congress or congressional staffers. Each FOIA requested records within a two-week period, from June 1, 2017 to June 15, 2017.

But only in March 2018—a month after we filed a lawsuit against the EPA for failing to complete FOIA searches—did the EPA agree to conduct the searches we requested in our June 2017 FOIAs.

The agency has used the same tactic in other cases, too. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) submitted a FOIA request for Pruitt’s correspondence in March 2017, but the EPA denied the request for not being reasonably described. CBD sued the EPA in May 2017, and in July 2017, the EPA agreed to produce records in response to CBD’s original request. The EPA has demonstrated a troubling pattern of refusing to release records unless faced with a lawsuit.

American Oversight has already made progress toward one part of our initial goal: the release of EPA records in response to our June 2017 FOIA requests. The most significant part of our case lies ahead, though, as we seek to prevent the EPA from illegally rejecting other valid FOIA requests in the future.

We’ve seen that groups like American Oversight and CBD can force the EPA’s hand by suing the agency, but most Americans don’t have the 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 EPA that denying reasonably described FOIA requests is illegal. If the court agrees with us, it will help ensure that FOIA works for the people it’s meant to serve: the American public.

See the motion below: