Administrative Law - Government Agency Withholding Information, Reimbursing Attorney Fees - Davy V. Central Intelligence Agency

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Administrative Law--Government Agency Withholding Information, Reimbursing Attorney Fees--Davy v. Central Intelligence Agency, 550 F.3d 1155 (D.C. Cir. 2008)

Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966 to allow private citizens wide access to government information protected by federal agencies. (1) In an effort to enable greater public access to government documents, Congress amended FOIA in 1974 to include a provision awarding attorneys' fees to any individual who substantially prevails in an action requesting agency information. (2) In Davy v. Central Intelligence Agency, (3) the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia considered whether an author who publishes a book based, in part, on information obtained from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in partial satisfaction of his request under FOIA is entitled to attorneys' fees. (4) The majority awarded the author attorneys' fees because he substantially prevailed in the earlier litigation, his interest in the information sought served a public benefit, he was not motivated entirely by commercial interests, and the CIA did not present a reasonable basis to deny disclosure of the information. (5)

On December 13, 1993, author and researcher William Davy, Jr. filed a FOIA request with the CIA seeking certain records pertaining to President John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s assassination. (6) Six years later, the CIA denied Davy's request. (7) Davy subsequently sued the CIA for its failure to produce the documents, although the CIA dismissed the complaint because the statute of limitations had expired. (8) Davy filed a second FOIA request with the CIA, which resulted in a joint stipulation for the production of responsive documents. (9) After producing only some of Davy's requested documents, the CIA successfully moved for summary judgment. (10) Davy then moved for attorneys' fees under [section] 552(a)(4)(E) of FOIA, and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia remanded the case, determining that Davy was eligible to receive attorneys' fees because he substantially prevailed in the district court action. (11) On remand, the district court denied Davy's request for attorneys' fees reasoning that the nature of Davy's claim was purely commercial and the CIA had a reasonable basis to deny production of the documents. (12)

Davy appealed the district court's ruling to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. (13) The court of appeals reversed and held that Davy was entitled to attorneys' fees. (14) Using the four-prong FOIA test, the court first determined that the district court correctly weighed the "public benefit" factor in Davy's favor. (15) The court then decided that the district court had abused its discretion in determining that the second and third prongs weighed in the CIA's favor. (16) Finally, the court of appeals concluded that the district court erred in favoring the CIA under the fourth prong. (17) Weighing all the factors, the court of appeals reversed the district court's ruling and held that Davy was entitled to attorneys' fees. (18)

In 1974, Congress amended FOIA to include an attorneys' fees provision under a belief that such fees play a crucial role in promoting a strong national policy favoring an accessible government. (19) Under [section] 552(a)(4)(E)(i) of FOIA, "[t]he court may assess against the United States reasonable attorney fees and other litigation costs ... in any case ... in which the complainant has substantially prevailed." (20) For a plaintiff seeking disclosure of government agency records to "substantially prevail," courts require that the litigation merely result in agency disclosure of the requested documents. (21) Aside from a situation where a court rules in favor of the requester on the merits of the case, this disclosure may also result from either a court order or the agency voluntarily providing the information before the close of litigation. …