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Each entry provides background and context about an exemption to the public records laws in all fifty states, as well as federal FOIA. Read more about United States of America's public records law or explore all our expert FOIA guides. Have a public records appeal or information on an exemption we should include? Consider sharing your knowledge with everyone by donating your FOIA appeal language.

Vague and Unduly Burdensome

Also known as Request Not Reasonably Described.

Thank you to Sai and Michael Morisy for contributing to this entry. This guide is for informational purposes only, is general in nature, and is not legal opinion nor legal advice regarding any specific issue or factual circumstance.

Under 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A), also known as vague and burdensome, agencies are only required to process requests that “reasonably describe” the records in question.

This standard was upheld in Hudgins v. IRS, 620 F. Supp. 19 (D.D.C. 1985).

Example Appeals

I would like to appeal the letter I received saying that my FOIA request "is too broad in scope or did not specifically identify the records which you are seeking."

I believe that I very narrowly constructed my request to a limited number of records that would relate to the stated subject. It is inappropriate for this agency to issue such a letter so quickly after receiving the request.

Please instruct the FOIA officers to complete a search for records before making such a determination.

Occasionally agencies might say that because a request is voluminous, the request is not reasonably defined. This may not be the case: Requests may be broad, as long as they are well defined.

The requirement to "reasonably describe" applies only to the search phase. The difficult of reviewing and redacting, even for "voluminous" responsive documents, is irrelevant to the threshold question of whether a request is "reasonably described".

DoJ FOIA Update, Vol. IV, No. 3, at 5:

"The sheer size or burdensomeness of a FOIA request, in and of itself, does not entitle an agency to deny that request on the ground that it does not 'reasonably describe' records within the meaning of 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A). That provision in the FOIA was intended to ensure that a FOIA request description "be sufficient [to enable] a professional employee of the agency who was familiar with the subject area of the request to locate the record with a reasonable amount of effort." H.R. Rep. No. 93-876, 93d Cong., 2d Sess. 6 (1974). See also S. Rep. No. 93-854, 93d Cong., 2d Sess. 10 (1974) ("[T]he identification standard should not be used to obstruct public access to agency records."); Bristol-Meyers Co. v. FTC, 424 F.2d 935, 938 (D.C. Cir.), cert.denied, 400 U.S. 824 (1970)."


Proper Use

This exemption is often applied to malicious requests or those meant to be purposefully burdensome or harassing, requests that are fundamentally beyond the scope of the agency, or simple the impossible, e.g. “every record this agency possesses.” It’s also properly used if a requester asks a question, rather than asks for responsive documents.

Improper Use

Oftentimes, agencies will use this exemption to push back on what they feel are particularly broad requests. However, the determination is not based on the volume of the request, but rather the practicalities of assessing and processing it.

Key Citations

Key Citations

The Court of Appeals held that, in Wells v. U.S. Dep’t of Educ. Off. for Civ. Rts., if the agency does not understand the request, it is not under an obligation to process it.

In Freedom Watch, Inc. v. CIA, it was found that a request asking for “anything ‘relating to’” three countries, for example, was too broad, particularly in that it asked government officials to use their judgement in determining whether something was “related to” the topic at hand.

Similarly, Exxon Mobil Corp. v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior found that a request for “any and all” documents was “impermissibly broad and [did] not comply with FOIA’s requirement that the request for records ‘reasonably describe[] such records.’“