Journalist awarded more than $400,000 in FOIA case against FBI

Lilly Chapa | Freedom of Information | News | October 22, 2012

A federal court awarded a California-based journalist and author nearly half a million dollars in fees, concluding two FOIA litigation battles with the FBI that lasted for more than 25 years.

U.S. District Judge Edward Chen in San Francisco ruled Thursday that the FBI must pay Seth Rosenfeld $479,459 in attorneys’ fees because the journalist “substantially prevailed” in the two lawsuits he filed against the FBI.

David Greene, an attorney at the law firm of Bryan Cave who represented Rosenfeld, said in an interview that the sum of the awarded fees is large for a FOIA case but not unprecedented.

“We had four summary judgment awards in one of the cases, which is what drove up the fees,” Greene said.

Rosenfeld filed the first lawsuit against the FBI in 1985 after his FOIA requests for information about the 1960s protest movement in Berkley went unanswered. The case was settled in 1996, when Rosenfeld was awarded $560,000 in fees, and the FBI agreed to do new searches and release more information on the requested topics. Under the settlement agreement, If Rosenfeld felt that the FBI did not comply, he could go to a federal magistrate judge and challenge the bureau.

In 2006, the FBI announced that it had completed the new FOIA search, but Rosenfeld thought that the bureau had not complied with the settlement agreement. The journalist tried to talk to FBI officials about the issue but eventually went to a magistrate and lodged challenges against the bureau.

Rosenfeld also filed a second suit in 2007, accusing the bureau of withholding information about its relationship with former President Ronald Reagan.

Rosenfeld will not get any of the awarded money. It will go to the First Amendment Project of Oakland, the organization that litigated the lawsuits free of charge for 20 years, and Bryan Cave, the law firm that brought the motions for the fees.

Greene said Rosenfeld’s requests, which have been known as some of the longest pending FOIA requests, forced the FBI to release more than 300,000 pages of records since the 1980s.

Rosenfeld, a former reporter at The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, used the requested information for articles and a book he wrote.

The book, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power, was published in August and was based on the released documents.

“It’s a significant and large fee award, one that could have been completely avoided if [the FBI] had done what the law said they were supposed to do and what they agreed to do in terms of complying with the settlement agreement,” Greene said.