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FOI requester wins attorney fees for expedited review

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Aug. 11, 2005


FOI requester wins attorney fees for expedited review

  • A Freedom of Information Act requester who won a court ruling ordering the government to expedite processing of her records request is eligible for attorney fees, a federal appellate court ruled this week.

Aug. 11, 2005  ·   Former FBI translator and fired government whistleblower Sibel Edmonds is eligible to recover attorney fees from the agency after successfully petitioning a court for expedited processing of her Freedom of Information Act request, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled Tuesday.

To be eligible for attorney fees in FOI Act litigation, a plaintiff must have “substantially prevailed.” Edmonds’ expedited processing win met this test, Judge Merrick B. Garland wrote for a unanimous three-judge appellate panel, reversing a district court decision.

Garland sent the case back to U.S. District Court to determine the amount of the fees.

Edmonds requested records in April 2002 pertaining to her firing the previous month from the FBI where she had worked as a contract linguist since September 2001. She was fired after complaining about quality and security problems at the FBI’s counter-terrorism language division.

She requested speedy review of her requests under the FOI Act’s “expedited review” provision that allows requesters who meet statutory requirements the right to accelerated processing.

The FBI ignored her expedited review request, and in June 2002 Edmonds sued.

The FBI offered to settle the case by releasing documents not exempt from the FOI Act by Jan. 20, 2003, if she dropped the lawsuit. Edmonds refused to accept the settlement unless the government would make it court-enforceable. The government said no.

In December 2002, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ruled in Edmonds’ favor and told the FBI to produce nonexempt records by Feb. 10, 2003. Huvelle later said that Edmonds’ expedited processing victory did not make her eligible for attorney’s fees and Edmonds appealed.

Garland rejected the idea that Edmonds’ victory was not substantial enough to merit a fee award. “Plainly, there is value to obtaining something earlier than one otherwise would. That is why people commonly pay — and delivery services commonly charge — a premium for next-day delivery of important documents,” he wrote.

“The 1996 FOIA amendments underlined Congress’ recognition of the value in hastening release of certain information,” he concluded.

The controversy is just one of many lawsuits related to Edmonds’ termination from the FBI. She has a petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to rule on the government’s invocation of the “state secrets privilege” to derail her retaliatory termination lawsuit against the FBI.

In July 2004, a federal court dismissed her whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against the agency after the government claimed that “further disclosure of the information underlying this case . . . could be expected to cause damage to the national security interests of the United States.” The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., affirmed that decision in May.

(Edmonds v. Federal Bureau of Investigation; Requester Counsel: David K. Colapinto, Washington, D.C.)RL

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