The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is facing a lawsuit over its alleged mishandling of records requests under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Plaintiffs accuse the agency of “systematically obstruct[ing]” attempts by the public to acquire details about the U.S. government’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
A watchdog group, American Oversight, announced the lawsuit on Friday, saying it had submitted six FOIA requests seeking documents of “urgent importance” concerning the ongoing pandemic. At least some of those requests were denied on the basis that the group’s descriptions of the documents it sought are “overly broad.”
In a 2014 case cited by the plaintiffs, a federal judge in the D.C. district court expressed scepticism over the notion that a FOIA request could be denied based solely on the sheer number of documents requested. “Indeed, the Act puts no restrictions on the quantity of records that may be sought,” wrote the judge. The law even provides agencies a recourse—additional time—to handle requests involving a “voluminous amount of separate and distinct records.”
“Thus, FOIA anticipates that requests for records may be so voluminous as to require an agency to carry an unusual workload,” the judge continued. “This Circuit has similarly noted that the number of records requested appears to be irrelevant.”
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.
“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.”
Oversight’s lawsuit claims the CDC has exhibited a “pattern and practice” of mishandling the requests. A pattern-and-practice lawsuit seeks to demonstrate that an agency is habitually failing to comply with the transparency law—to the extent that a court order has become necessary to ensure its compliance.
Gizmodo previously reported on the growing concerns of U.S. lawmakers over the unnecessary restrictions federal agencies have placed on Americans seeking access to public records amid the outbreak.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) earlier this month, asking if it had issued any guidance to federal agencies regarding the administration of FOIA during the public health crisis. (OIP is responsible for “encouraging agency compliance with the law” and “overseeing agency implementation of it.”)
Evers, a former senior counsel in the U.S. State Department, noted that while his organisation has the legal resources to combat delinquent agencies, the public at large does not.
“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,” he said. “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.”