There are only two requirements stipulated by the FOIA governing requests for records: (1) requests must "reasonably describe" the records sought, and (2) they must be made according to agency procedural regulations which are published in the Federal Register. A request is considered reasonably described if it enables a professional agency employee familiar with the subject area to locate the record with a reasonable amount of effort, and does not require wide-ranging, unreasonably burdensome searches for records. The new Electronic Freedom of Information Amendments requires an agency to provide the records in any format requested, if reproducible in that format, and to maintain records in such formats.
When responsive documents containing exempt material are located, the releasable material must be segregated from the nonexempt portions. However, exempt and nonexempt material may be so inextricably intertwined that segregation of such material would provide essentially meaningless nonexempt records; in such case, the document can be exempted in its entirety, foregoing any segregation. The agency may choose any reasonable medium for disclosure, such as paper, microfiche, and digital/computer discs.
A Proper FOIA Request
Requests that are not filed in accordance with the requirements of the FOIA and DOE’s Regulation (10 C.F.R. 1004) may not be deemed received until the request has been identified as a proper FOIA request by agency personnel. Therefore, until such time, there is no obligation on the part of the agency to meet time deadlines, search for records, or supply requested records. In addition, if a requester has accrued debts which he/she has failed to pay, an agency may refuse to process any subsequent requests made by that individual until the debt is paid.
Types of initial notification to requesters may state: that the request has been forwarded to a primary responsible office for action; the responsive documents are enclosed; documents are already in the public domain and accessible; no documents have been found; or that, for certain reasons, their letter fails to meet FOIA criteria. In this latter case, the following reasons may arise: the request does not state a willingness to pay; the request fails to substantiate (i.e., justify) a requested fee waiver; the request is too broad; or the request asks for information, asks questions rather than requests records, such as requesting the completion of a long questionnaire.
A Typical FOIA Request
A proper FOIA request should include the requester’s statement "pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, I hereby request...", a reasonably described agency record, and a statement of his or her willingness to pay for processing charges.
Types of Standard Notifications
Once the FOIA request is deemed received, it is the policy of DOE to provide the requested documents within twenty working days from the time the FOIA Officer received the request: (1) if the responsive records are located in several offices, (2) if the request requires examination of voluminous amounts of records, and (3) when it is necessary to consult with another agency or agency component additional time may be taken by mutual agreement, an additional ten days maybe taken.
Standard Acknowledgement Letter
DOE’s standard acknowledgement letter should state that the request has been deemed received and has been forwarded to the appropriate offices. The acknowledgement letter should state the date of the requester’s letter, the date the request was received, identify the receiving FOIA office, and the offices tasked with responding to the request, contact name, number and address of the responsive office; expedited processing is provided under conditions of compelling need. They include threat or safety of persons engaged in the dissemination of information of public records involving actual or alleged government activity. The agency must decide within ten day whether to grant expedited processing and notify the requestor of the decision.
Fully Responsive Records
When retrieved records are determined to fully satisfy a FOIA request, the response letter should indicate: the office processing the request; the individual who has determined that records are fully responsive, and an office contact name and telephone number. The letter should also indicate that this is the office’s final response to the request.
Withholding Responsive Records
Denial letters should inform the requester of the reasons for the denial in explicit detail, the name and title of each denying official, the requester’s right to appeal and the address to file an appeal.
Documents in the Public Domain
When responsive documents are already in the public domain and are reasonably accessible to the requester, the requester only has to be informed as to the location of such records (e.g., a specific public reading room), or how such records may be ordered (e.g. the National Technical Information Service). If the requester is referred to a location where responsive documents can be picked up or copied, as opposed to ordered, then the agency should ensure that the requester is in reasonable proximity to the location of the records. If such records are unreasonably far in proximity, and there is no way of ordering the documents, then the individual’s request should be processed through the FOIA.
No Documents Found
An agency response stating that no responsive documents have been found should be made by an "agency professional" who is familiar with the records and the offices that were searched. The request should identify the offices searched, notify the requester of his or her right to administratively appeal the adequacy of search, and the address to which the appeal should be directed. The response should, in addition, indicate whether this is the final response by that office or if further action on the request is pending.
Transfer Letter to Another Facility
When requested documents fall under the purview of another DOE Freedom of Information Act Officer (i.e., Headquarters FOIA Officer or Field FOIA Officer) or another agency, the request should be transferred to them for processing and direct response to the requester. Therefore, if Headquarters receives a FOIA request for records that are maintained by another field facility, such as the Albuquerque Operations Office, the request should be transferred to that field FOIA Officer. The 20-day time limit to respond does not begin until the appropriate FOIA Officer receives the request. In addition, determinations concerning fee waivers are made by the appropriate FOIA Officer.
Transfer Letter to Another Agency
When requests are received asking for records created or maintained by another agency, the request should be transferred to the FOIA Office of that agency for their disclosure determination. The FOIA office should inform the requester of the transfer. The responsible agency should be informed whether to provide the documents, if determined to be releasable directly to the requester or whether the documents should be sent to the forwarding agency for coordination and release.
FAILURE TO MEET THE CRITERIA OF A FOIA REQUEST:
Requesting Information as Opposed to Records
The FOIA applies only to government records. When a request is for information rather than records, (e.g., such as a series of questions to be answered), that request would not meet the criteria of a FOIA request.
In addition to reasonably describing the requested documents, a request must conform with DOE’s procedural rules. DOE Regulations 10 C.F.R. 1004.4 (c) (1), requires that DOE be able to identify and locate requested records by a process that is not unreasonably burdensome or disruptive of BPA operations. Therefore, the DOE is not required to conduct wide-ranging and unreasonably burdensome searches for records.