How to File an FOIA Request

(Page 2 of 2 of How to Use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act)

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If you know the information you're after, you'll need to figure out which department or agency is likely to have it. The government doesn't maintain a central FOIA office; instead, every department and agency has its own FOIA office. The Department of Justice's (DOJ) website (at www.justice.gov/oip/) is the place to start, because it maintains links to all other federal agencies' FOIA websites. Once on these sites, you'll find information on the types of records they maintain. The DOJ also provides a list of FOIA contacts, whom you can phone or email with questions as to whether that agency has the information you seek. If you can't figure out which of two or more agencies has the information, you can send FOIA requests to more than one.

Preparing Your FOIA Request

The federal government does not have a form for use by all FOIA requesters, but many agencies and departments have guidelines for your request (you'll find them on the FOIA section of the agencies' websites). But you can do it yourself, too, or use a free template or sample provided by another organization.

Writing Your Own FOIA Request

To prepare your own request, write a letter using the below guidelines.

  • Provide your name, address, and phone number. Include an email address so that the agency can contact you if they have questions about your request.
  • State whether you are making an FOIA or a Privacy Act request (or both).
  • Give as much information about the records you are requesting as possible, including a document's name and date, if you know them.
  • State whether you're requesting the information in a form or format other than paper, such as on a CD-ROM.
  • State your willingness to pay any fees, and include an amount you would be willing to pay, as advance authorization.

Once your FOIA request is received by the right agency, it has 20 days in which to tell you whether it will comply with the request. If your request is denied in whole or in part, the agency must give you their reasons within this time. Records that the agency indicates it will provide must be delivered within a reasonable time.

So much for theory. In practice, many agencies cannot make the 20-day deadline. They can extend it in "unusual circumstances," which include the need to find and obtain records from more than one office, having to examine a large amount of records, and needing to consult with another agency before making a decision. If the extension will exceed ten days, the requester has an opportunity to rewrite the request.

Requesters may ask for an expedited response if they can show a "compelling need." For example, if failing to receive the records quickly will endanger a person's life or physical safety, you may ask for urgent processing of your request. A requester's need to inform the public on actual or alleged federal government activity, if the requester is "primarily engaged in disseminating information" (such as a professional journalist), could also support an argument for compelling need.

Appealing an FOIA Rejection

If you're not satisfied with the way that your request was handled, you can file an appeal with the federal Department of Justice. You can appeal the agency's use of an exemption to withhold information, their refusal to grant a fee waiver (or to contest the fee they have asked for), their determination that a record doesn't exist, as well as their decision that the record is not reproducible in the format you've asked for. The agency should advise you of your appeal rights in the letter denying your request for the records or a fee waiver. You can see a sample appeal letter on the FOIAdvocates website.

If your administrative appeal is not successful, you can appeal in federal court. For most people, this means hiring a lawyer, because the issues can be quite complex. The government must prove that withholding the information was justified. In most cases, the government will prevail. If you wish to hire a lawyer to help you with your FOIA request or appeal, go to the Government & Environmental Lawyers section of Nolo's Lawyer Directory to find a lawyer in your geographical area.

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