NEW YORK–The government may not refuse to search for records requested under the federal Freedom of Information Act simply because it finds the search too burdensome, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York (2d Cir.) ruled in mid-April.
Reversing a summary judgment of the lower court, the appeals panel said the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice must either show how the search for requested records would be “unreasonably” burdensome or begin processing the FOI request for the records.
In 1992 Kathleen and Michael Ruotolo, who worked in landscaping and snow-removal services in Guilford, Conn., filed a FOI Act request with the Internal Revenue Service hoping for records to help them in an IRS investigation into their possible tax violations.
Ultimately the Ruotolos sued for the records, and the government was forced to provide a “Vaughn index,” which described the withheld records.
The couple felt the index was inadequate and requested copies of other Vaughn indices that the Tax Division of the Justice Department had provided in past litigation. They also sought affidavits, declarations, court orders and relevant portions of briefs filed in court.
They initially had offered to pay the government up to $250 for the records, and later offered up to $600. But the government insisted that it did not need to process the request at all because it had not indexed its records in order to retrieve specifically what the Ruotolos had requested.
When the Ruotolos sued, the government argued successfully before the federal District Court in Bridgeport, Conn., that the couple had not reasonably described the records.
But the appeals court disagreed. Noting that the Ruotolos had clearly described the records they wanted, the appeals panel said a federal agency has the burden of showing that its search for records was adequate.
The court also said that if a requester has not reasonably described records, the agency must make contact in an effort to help them reformulate their request. It noted that the government had made no offer of help to the Ruotolos in making their request. (Ruotolo v. DOJ; Counsel: Michael Ruotolo, Pro Se, Guilford, Conn.)
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