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Names of consumers who file FTC complaints not public

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    News Media Update         SEVENTH CIRCUIT         Freedom of Information    

Names of consumers who file FTC complaints not public

  • A federal appellate court in Chicago ruled that the personal privacy exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act permits the Federal Trade Commission to withhold the names of consumers who file complaints with the agency.

Jan. 7, 2004 — The names, addresses and other identifying information of consumers who file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission are exempt from disclosure under the federal Freedom of Information Act, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) ruled last month.

The Lakin Law Firm in Wood River, Ill., filed an FOI request with the commission in May 2002 for information concerning consumer complaints of “cramming” by credit card companies. “Cramming” is the practice of charging consumers a fee without their knowledge or permission in the hope that they do not notice the charge and unwittingly pay it. The firm intended to use the information for a possible class action lawsuit.

The commission released 1,400 pages of documents, but not the names or addresses of the complainants. The commission claimed that an exemption to the FOI Act for “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” applied.

Lakin filed an administrative appeal, which the commission denied, then filed suit in U.S. District Court in East Saint Louis. The court dismissed the suit, and Lakin appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

In its appeal, the firm argued that the names of complainants were not “personnel,” “medical” or similar files, and even if they were, the information did not constitute a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Furthermore, there was reason to believe the commission had already released the information to other groups, that the commission itself had previously argued that the information was not private, and that the commission warns complainants that the information they give may be released under the FOI Act, Lakin said.

In its Dec. 16 ruling, a three-judge panel rejected those arguments as “unpersuasive.” Judge Evan A. Evans, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, wrote that “FOIA’s central purpose is to guarantee that the government’s activities be opened to the sharp eye of public scrutiny, not that information about private citizens that happens to be in the warehouse of the government be so disclosed.”

Attorney Thomas A. Maag, who argued the case for Lakin, said he will request a rehearing by the full appellate court.

(Lakin Law Firm P.C. v. Federal Trade Commission; Media Counsel: Thomas G. Maag, Lakin Law Firm, Wood River, Ill.) GP

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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