In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today rejected an attempt to place new limits on the right to request federal agency documents after a rejection of the same request had already been unsuccessfully litigated by another party.
While lower courts had accepted the government’s argument in Taylor v. Sturgell that the "virtual representation" theory of claim preclusion — the idea that two parties with similar, but not legally related, interests cannot separately litigate the same claim — should be read into Freedom of Information Act law, the nation’s high court adamantly disagreed.
The Court found that denying additional claims in such instances would violate the historic tradition of allowing each litigant "his own day in court."
Represented by the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen, petitioner Brent Taylor had challenged a U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decision that found he could not request documents from the Federal Aviation Administration because another party with whom Taylor was associated had already lost a case for the same documents in the 10th Circuit.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press signed on to an amicus brief filed by The National Security Archive in support of Taylor.
Taylor, an Iowa resident and mechanic who restores antique aircraft, filed a FOIA request with the FAA for records related to the rare F-45 aircraft just a week after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit denied Greg Herrick’s FOIA appeal to obtain the same documents.
In denying Taylor’s appeal of the FAA rejection, the D.C. Circuit had emphasized connections between the two FOIA requesters: Herrick had asked Taylor to file the request while also hiring Taylor to fix his plane.
Taylor has also been represented by Herrick’s lawyer in the case.
Given the skeptical comments the government’s attorneys had received from a majority of the justices during oral arguments in April, the Court’s decision today was not surprising.
While the decision was a clear win for open government advocates, the Court did remand Taylor’s case to determine if he had indeed been acting as Herrick’s agent. That may have precluded Taylor’s claim, based on federal common law.
But the Court said special care should be taken in that analysis, and the government has the burden to prove such agency relationships.
"[C]ourts should be cautious about finding preclusion on this basis," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her decision. "A mere whiff of ‘tactical maneuvering’ will not suffice."