Corporations can have a "personal privacy" interest that can cause their records to be withheld from government release under a Freedom of Information Act request, a federal appellate court found on Sept. 22.
The ruling hinged primarily on analysis of the term “personal privacy” within the statute. At issue was FOIA’s Exemption 7(C), the law enforcement exemption, which prevents the release of records compiled for law enforcement purposes that could be considered an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
The case’s complicated history stems from a dispute that arose when AT&T Inc. participated in a Federal Communications Commission program that increased schools’ access to advanced telecommunications technology. AT&T reported an overcharge to the government for some of the work it completed during the program and cooperated while the FCC investigated.
The reports that resulted from the investigation became the subject of a FOIA claim when CompTel, a trade association that represents AT&T competitors, requested the records from the FCC. Per its policy, the FCC notified AT&T of the request and gave the company a chance to respond, but rejected the company’s claim that the law enforcement exemption prevented the agency from disclosing its records.
Generally, only the entity that makes a FOIA request may seek review of an agency’s decision, but AT&T appealed under an exception that allows those who voluntarily submit confidential records to appeal the release. Though the FCC denied that AT&T had submitted the records in confidence, it allowed the appeal to go forward and ruled that a corporation lacks "personal privacy" under the exemption.
AT&T appealed the administrative ruling and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) reversed the FCC’s decision, noting that “FOIA does not define ‘personal,’ but it does define ‘person’ to ‘include an individual, partnership, corporation, association, or public or private organization other than an agency.’” The court agreed with AT&T’s argument that “[a]fter all, ‘personal’ is the adjectival form of ‘person,’ and FOIA defines ‘person’ to include a corporation.”
Judge Michael A. Chagares, joined by Judge Julio M. Fuentes and visiting Ninth Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima, rejected FCC and CompTel’s arguments that the plain meaning of the word ‘personal’ cannot include a corporation. “This argument is unpersuasive,” wrote Chagares. “It fails to take into account that ‘person’ — the root from which the statutory word at issue is derived — is a defined term.”
The court also considered the legislative intent behind the statutory language, noting that if Congress had wanted to exclude corporations from the term “personal privacy,” it could have referred to “the privacy of any individual,” as it has in other statutes.
Concluding that “FOIA’s text unambiguously indicates that a corporation may have a “personal privacy” interest within the meaning of Exemption 7(C),” the court remanded the case to the FCC to consider whether disclosure of the records actually could constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy for AT&T.