Sizing Up A Successful FOIA Litigation

Bill Moyers drafted this paragraph for President Johnson’s FOIA signing statement in 1966. LBJ rejected it, but it’s a good reminder of what FOIA is really all about, or should be about.

My Boundary Waters Freedom of Information Act case, Galdieri v. Department of  the Interior, is about to wrap up, with a Stipulation of Dismissal to be filed shortly.*

In my first outing as a pro-se FOIA plaintiff, I obtained over 6,500 pages of previously unreleased records. Some of these records made their way into congressional hearings, news stories public commentopinion pieces, and a webinar. Maybe they contributed to the public understanding of decisions the previous administration made; maybe they even helped change some minds. I’ll probably never know. Instead, I’m trying to sort through what I learned in the process and how these lessons might apply to my work in the future.

While there’s no formal judgment I can tout, a Settlement Agreement covers my litigation costs (a $400 filing fee), and I’m happy to take that as tacit admission that I “substantially prevailed,” in terms of the Freedom of Information Act. The statute says “a complainant has substantially prevailed” — and is therefore entitled to litigation costs and attorney fees — “if the complainant has obtained relief… through a voluntary or unilateral change in position by the agency.” That’s essentially what happened here, when the Department of the Interior agreed to review over 25,000 pages of records it had held back.

I might have pressed for even more than the filing fee, but I am not sure how strong my case would have been. In Cuneo v. Rumsfeld, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals offered this reasoning:

In enacting [The Freedom of Information Act,] Congress sought to lower the barriers facing the average person requesting information. Furthermore, successful FOIA litigants enhance the public interest by bringing the government into compliance with the law. As agents of the national policy of public disclosure it is equitable that they be awarded for their service. Under current federal attorney fee statutes when the social service rendered by the prevailing party is substantial, the courts have been willing to dispense with formal and rigid attorney and client requirements. … A successful FOIA litigant is entitled to similar consideration.

The question how I might value the time spent on this project doesn’t really come down to dollars and cents anyway. There’s another register of value in the language the court uses in Cuneo regarding “the public interest” and in the language about “good government” Bill Moyers uses in his draft of LBJ’s FOIA signing statement. These texts help hitch my efforts to a serious purpose, and I reach for them with that in mind.

I hope that doesn’t sound self-aggrandizing. This three-year-long episode started with an idea for a film, an investigative documentary that would travel from New York to Minnesota, Washington DC, and Santiago, Chile. That was ambitious. Instead, I ended up on a paper chase and locked down in Brooklyn during a pandemic. That was frustrating and humbling.

Along with what I learned during that period about the putative subject of my investigation, I am reminded (once again!) that there’s always meaningful work to be done after things fall apart or plans go awry.  A small consolation for mice and men.

*Update, 19 May 2022: A stipulation of dismissal was filed this morning and the judge ordered the case dismissed.

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