District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses Dismissal of FOIA Request

District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses Dismissal of FOIA Request

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss the appeal of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records request on June 28, 2016.

Florent Bayala sued the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after it failed to properly respond to his FOIA request. Bayala, a citizen of Burkina Faso, applied for asylum in 2012. In November 2013, Bayala filed a FOIA request with DHS asking for copies of the asylum officer’s notes, the three-page assessment generated by DHS, and any material used by the officer but not already given to him.

Two months later, DHS responded with 119 out of 157 pages of documents. The notes and the assessment from Bayala’s asylum hearing were withheld. Crucially, DHS provided a blanket “laundry list of ‘applicable’ exemptions” without any elaboration as to which exemptions applied to which portions of which withheld pages or why.

Bayala immediately sued in the district court, arguing that he could not file an administrative appeal of the response because the lack of explanation for the excluded material made doing so impossible.

Three months after Bayala filed suit, DHS voluntarily released the asylum officer’s notes and a number of other previously withheld documents but did not release the assessment itself. DHS provided a new explanation and a more detailed explanation for the withholdings. Specifically, the Department cited the exemption for internal agency memoranda privileged by law from disclosure pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5).

The district court dismissed Bayala’s case, rejecting his claim that he could not have filed a meaningful administrative appeal due to the Agency’s scant and unfocused initial response.

The court of appeals reversed. The court held that the Department’s argument that Bayala was required to file an administrative appeal became moot when it abandoned its previous response and sua sponte released more documents and a new five-page explanation for its withholding decision. Thus, the case could not be dismissed for failure to file an administrative appeal.

The district court’s dismissal was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Bayala was represented by David Cleveland.

See:  Bayala v. United States Department of Homeland Security, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, No. 14-5279.

Originally published in Prison Legal News, September 6, 2016.