FOIA, which stands for the Freedom of Information Act, is a statute (i.e. a federal law). Submitting a FOIA request allows groups or individuals to request documents that are considered public records from government agencies. In our case, one of the most relevant agencies is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
This week, CCK attorney Maura Clancy and founding partner Robert Chisholm break down the FOIA process and discuss how to submit a FOIA request, how to fight back if the VA denies your request, and how we use FOIA to benefit our clients.
How to submit a FOIA request
Submitting a FOIA request is relatively simple. Anyone can take advantage of FOIA, such as an individual, someone acting on the behalf of an individual, or an organization like a law firm. You just need to submit a written request for the information you are seeking from the Agency. In the request, make sure to provide enough detail about the documents you are seeking, to allow the Agency to easily locate what you are looking for.
The VA website includes a page about how to use the FOIA service. The page gives information about where to send your written request, how to get in contact with VA’s FOIA service officers, and other helpful details.
Potential roadblocks – exemptions and costs
If the documents you are seeking are disclosable under FOIA—that is, they are considered public records—then the agency should eventually turn them over. However, there are many exemptions under the FOIA statute, and VA officials may claim that those exemptions apply to your request, blocking the disclosure of certain documents. Denials like this can, however, be appealed, as is explained below.
There are sometimes costs associated with a FOIA request. If, for example, the type of information you request turns up several thousand pages of documents, you may be asked to pay a fee for copying and production. But usually, the FOIA service officer will send you an estimate cost and ask if you would like to accept the charges and receive the documents, or alternatively, refuse the charges and therefore the documents. So, you will be given written notice before any fees are charged to you.
What if the VA denies my FOIA request?
If your request is denied, you can appeal the denial. If you disagree with the denial of your initial request, you can file an administrative appeal within the Agency to try to overturn the VA’s determination. And if the VA (or other Agency) continues to deny the request, and you have exhausted the administrative appeal process, you can take the appeal to a U.S. District Court.
How does CCK use FOIA for our clients?
As a law firm, we find that FOIA is most useful when we identify problematic trends within the agency. We might submit a request when, for example, we notice that the VA is regularly making decisions based on a misstatement or misinterpretation of the law.
When we notice systemic or global problems like this, problems that are affecting many of our clients, we submit a FOIA request. In the request, we ask for information that might help us uncover why the problem is ongoing and that will help us make the best argument that we can on our clients’ behalf. For some concrete examples of recent FOIA requests CCK has made, check out the video at the top of the page.
And remember, when dealing with FOIA service officers and the VA, patience and persistence are key!
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