Each week, we host a conversation that addresses topics and answer any general questions important to FOIA users. Last week’s topic was one near and dear to our hearts: filing appeals!
Many of the MuckRock staff have written informative articles on this subject, but this article by Beryl Lipton about the scope and limitations of appeals in Massachusetts a great place to start.
Before you appeal
Let’s say an agency claims they can’t process your FOIA request. Where do you go from there? For starters, ask if maybe your request was a bit too open-ended? To help narrow your scope, a review of similar requests fulfilled on MuckRock can lead to specific language or formats. Conversely, if your request is not granted because your search was too narrow, try requesting metadata that will help you re-frame your request, such as a data set, data index, or a data dictionary. Additionally, it is very important that you narrow the time frame of your search. MuckRock team member JPat Brown, mentioned that, “If you start with a big ask, like 5 years of data, being willing to narrow down to a year, or even a specific month or week will make an agency a lot more likely to play ball.”
When to appeal
MuckRock slack member aabritis had a great question within this discussion regarding agencies that appear to be cooperative, but then release material so redacted it’s tantamount to a denial. This in turn lead to the question to the group: “… is there some criteria about [the level of effort need for redacting] that can guide how much effort should be expended in an appeal?”
Responding to aabritis’ question, MuckRock’s Michael Morisy stated
“I think there are two key factors when considering an appeal:
1) Did you get the documents you feel you’re legally entitled to and that you need to understand whatever it is you’re trying to understand? 2) Was the rejection or redaction egregious to the point that you think the agency is failing to fulfill its basic responsibilities?”
Generally speaking, every public records law take into how to account for the segregability of the data: Only the private bits should stay private.”
Micheal further described a resource called the Vaughn Index where: “[an agency] spells out exactly why is being withheld and why.”
What happens after you appeal
If even after your due-diligence you are still unable to gain access to your requested documents it maybe time to escalate this issue. Your next step, if you live in Massachusetts, is to appeal this decision to your Office of the Secretary of State, as they are the Supervisor of Public Records. This appeal may still not be in your favor, but do not despair there are still more steps one can take! We will be revisiting this topic and the next steps in the early part of next year.
Thanks for participating in last week’s chat! This week’s FOIA Friday Chat @2pm we will be discussing using FOIA to get info on private companies. Join us to see how we can relate this strategy to the news headlines about the Paradise Papers!