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FOIA law on attorney fees can be applied retroactively

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  1. Freedom of Information
A federal district court judge in Montana ruled that Freedom of Information Act requesters who prevail in litigation against federal agencies…

A federal district court judge in Montana ruled that Freedom of Information Act requesters who prevail in litigation against federal agencies can recover attorney fees under new statutory reforms enacted in December even if the litigation was filed prior to the reforms’ passage.

In an order released Wednesday, Judge Donald Malloy rejected the government’s assertions that applying the reforms retroactively would result in "manifest injustice" and that there was otherwise a common law "presumption against retroactivity" in FOIA attorney fees cases. The court awarded plaintiff Wildlands CPR, which had won the release of documents related to the U.S. Forest Service’s travel management plans, $68,512.50 in attorney fees and $4,189.49 in costs.

In granting the fees, Malloy applied the rule from Bradley v. Richmond School Board, a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case that said "a court is to apply the law in effect at the time it renders its decision, unless doing so would result in manifest injustice or there is a statutory or legislative history to the contrary."

The government had urged Malloy to apply Landgraph v. USI Film Products, a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case that distinguished Bradley in certain instances by asserting a "presumption against retroactivity" for some classes of newly enacted statutes.  Instead, Malloy found that statutes addressing FOIA attorney fees were more like those in Bradley than Landgraph. The district court judge employed a three-part test to find there was no manifest injustice in awarding the fees to Wildlands CPR.

The Forest Service decision comes just a little more than two weeks after a federal magistrate judge in the District of Columbia ruled that the Department of Justice owed a FOIA requester attorney fees under similar circumstances in which litigation was already pending when the FOIA reforms were enacted. The judge in that case employed similar reasoning, using Bradley and Landgraph in ruling that retroactive application of the statute was appropriate in FOIA attorney fees cases.