Statutes and Resources
This information booklet provides basic guidance about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act of 1974. A question - and - answer format is used to present information about these laws in a clear, simple manner to assist members of the public in exercising their rights. This publication is not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of the complex issues associated with the FOIA and the Privacy Act.
The questions are designed to provide information on the FOIA and the Privacy Act. The answers have been tailored to the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act procedures of the Corporation for National and Community Service (hereinafter "the Corporation").
The FOIA, enacted in 1966, as amended, generally provides that any person has a right of access to federal agency records. This right of access is enforceable in court except for those records that are protected from disclosure by the nine exemptions to the FOIA, which are discussed in the text.
Closely related to the Freedom of Information Act is the Privacy Act, another federal law regarding federal government records. The Privacy Act establishes certain controls over how the executive branch agencies of the federal government gather, maintain, and disseminate personal information. The Privacy Act can also be used to obtain access to information, but it pertains only to records the federal government keeps on individual citizens and lawfully admitted resident aliens. The FOIA, on the other hand, covers all records under the custody and control of federal executive branch agencies.
This information contains the most significant provisions of the FOIA and the Privacy Act as they pertain to the Corporation. I hope you find this information helpful.
The Freedom of Information Act
(1) What information is available under the FOIA?
The FOIA provides access to all federal agency records (or portions of those records) except those which are protected from release by nine specific exemptions (reasons an agency may withhold records from a requester). The exemptions cover such material as (1) classified national defense and foreign relations information, (2) internal agency personnel rules and practices, (3) material prohibited from disclosure by another law, (4) trade secrets and other confidential business information, (5) certain inter - agency or intra - agency communications, (6) personnel, medical, and other files involving personal privacy, (7) certain records compiled for law enforcement purposes, (8) matters relating to the supervision of financial institutions, and (9) geological information on oil wells.
The FOIA does not apply to Congress or the courts, nor does it apply to records of state or local governments. However, nearly all state governments have their own FOIA - type statutes. You may request information about a state's law by writing the attorney general of the state.
The FOIA does not require a private organization or business to release any information directly to the public, whether it has been submitted to the government or not. However, information submitted by private firms to the federal government may be available through a FOIA request provided that the information is not a trade secret, confidential business information, or protected by some other exemption.
Under the FOIA, you may request and receive a copy of any record that is in the Corporation's official files and is not covered by one of the exemptions. For example, suppose you have heard that a certain toy is being investigated as a safety hazard and you want to know the details. In this case, the Consumer Product Safety Commission could probably help you. Perhaps you want to read the latest inspection report on conditions at a nursing home certified for Medicare. Your local Social Security office keeps such records on file. Or, you might want to know if the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a file that includes you. In all these examples, you may use the FOIA to request information from the appropriate federal agency. When you make a FOIA request, you must describe the material you want as specifically as possible. If the agency cannot identify what you have requested with a reasonable amount of effort, it is under no obligation to you. The FOIA does not require agencies to do research for you, to compile or analyze data, or to answer questions.
(2) Whom do I contact in the Corporation for National and Community Service regarding my request? What address do I send my request?
To eliminate any confusion as to where a FOIA requester should submit their FOIA request, the Corporation maintains one centralized FOIA office for the entire agency. This office is assigned within the Office of the General Counsel. The FOIA Officer is also responsible for processing all Privacy Act (PA) requests for the Corporation. FOIA requests can be sent to the Corporation three ways:
(1) By mail: The address to mail a FOIA request is:
Corporation for National and Community Service
Office of the General Counsel
Attn: Freedom of Information Act Officer
1201 New York Avenue, N.W., Room 10606
Washington D.C., 20525
(2) By fax: The telephone number to submit a FOIA by fax is: (202) 606-3467. If this method is used, the requester must make sure his or her return address and a telephone contact number are shown within the request.
(3) In person: All FOIA requests can be hand-delivered, in person, between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, except where a Federal holiday falls on either of these two days.
Please ensure that, for requests that are mailed, the outside of the envelope clearly states "FOIA Request." Also, a request may be submitted to review any records that are found as a result of the FOIA request rather than have the records sent to the requester. If this is the case, the requester will be notified when these records are available for viewing and can make arrangements with the FOIA Officer to come to the Corporation's reading room to view the records.
(3) What information do I submit as part of request information under the FOIA?
Identify the records you want as accurately as possible. Although you do not have to give the document's name or title, your request must reasonably describe the records sought. Any facts or clues which you can furnish about the time, place, persons, events, subjects, or other details of the information or records you seek will be helpful to agency personnel in deciding where to search and in determining which records pertain to your request. This can save you and the government time and money and also improve your prospects for getting what you want.
A sample request is shown on the last page of this document. Keep a copy of your request. You may need it in the event of an appeal or if your original request is not answered.
If you are not sure whether the information you want falls under one of the nine exemptions, you may request it anyway. It might help your case to state your reason(s) for such a request, even though the FOIA does not require you to do so. (A requester should, however, always provide the reason(s) for requesting a waiver of fees.) Agencies usually have discretion to release material that falls under these exemptions. Stating your reason(s) for a request may persuade an agency to give you access to records it might otherwise deny as legally exempt. In addition, giving reasons for a request might help the agency to locate information which is useful to you.
(4) What about costs for getting records under the FOIA?
An agency may charge only for the actual cost of searching for the material and the cost of making copies for you. Search fees generally reflect salary levels of the personnel needed for the search. The charge for copying letter - size and legal is usually 10 cents per page in most agencies. Actual costs can vary from agency to agency.
For noncommercial requests, the Corporation will not charge for the first two hours of search time or for the first 100 pages of photocopies. The Corporation also may waive further charges if the total cost is minimal. If fees are charged, you may receive a waiver or reduction of fees if you request it and can show that the information you are seeking will, when released, contribute significantly to the public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.
(5) How long will it take to answer my request?
Federal agencies are required to answer your request for information within 20 working days of receipt (excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays). If you have not received a reply by the end of that time (be sure to allow for mailing time), you may write a follow - up letter or telephone the agency to ask about the delay. Sometimes an agency may need more than 20 working days to find the records, examine them, possibly consult other persons or agencies, and decide whether it will disclose the records requested. If so, the agency is required to inform you before the deadline. Agencies have the right to extend this period up to 10 more working days.
(6) What happens if the agency refuses to give me the information?
An agency ordinarily will deny a FOIA request, in whole or in part, only if it has a serious practical problem with granting it, supported by a legal reason for denial (an exemption). If an agency denies your request, it must be able to prove that the information is covered by one of the nine exemptions listed in the Act. The agency must give you the reason (the exemption) for denial in writing and inform you of your right to appeal the decision.
(7) How do I appeal a denial?
You should promptly send a letter notifying the agency that you want to appeal. The Corporation requires that appeals be made within 60 days from the date of the letter notifying you the Corporation's decision to denial your request for records. The denial letter should tell you to whom your appeal letter should be addressed. To appeal, simply ask the agency to review your FOIA request and change its decision. It is a good idea also to give your reason(s) for believing that the denial was wrong. Be sure you refer to all communications you have had on the matter. It will save time in acting on your appeal if you include copies of the original request for information and the agency's letter of denial. You do not need to enclose copies of any documents released to you.
The agency has 20 working days after it receives your appeal letter to respond. Under certain circumstances, it may also take an extension of up to 10 working days. If, however, an agency took 10 extra days to deny your initial request, it would not be entitled to an extension on the appeal.
(8) What can I do if my appeal is rejected?
If you are willing to invest the time and money, you may take the matter to court. You can file a FOIA lawsuit in the U.S. District Court where you live, where you have your principal place of business, where the documents are kept, or in the District of Columbia. In court, the agency will have to prove that the withheld records, or the withheld portions of them, are covered by one of the exemptions listed in the Act. If you win a substantial portion of your case, the court may require the government to pay court costs and reasonable attorney's fees for you.
The Privacy Act
(1) What is the Privacy Act?
The federal government compiles a wide range of information on individuals. For example, if you were ever in the military or employed by a federal agency, there should be records of your service. If you have ever applied for a federal grant or received a student loan guaranteed by the government, you are probably the subject of a file. There are records on every individual who has ever paid income taxes or received a check from Social Security or Medicare.
The Privacy Act, passed by Congress in 1974, establishes certain controls over what personal information is collected by the federal government and how it is used. The Act guarantees three primary rights: (1) the right to see records about yourself, subject to the Privacy Act's exemptions, (2) the right to amend that record if it is inaccurate, irrelevant, untimely, or incomplete, and (3) the right to sue the government for violations of the statute including permitting others to see your records unless specifically permitted by the Act.
It also provides for certain limitations on agency information practices, such as requiring that information about a person be collected from that person to the greatest extent practicable; requiring agencies to ensure that their records are relevant, accurate, timely, and complete; and prohibiting agencies from maintaining information describing how an individual exercises his or her First Amendment rights unless the individual consents to it, a statute permits it, or it is within the scope of an authorized law enforcement investigation.
(2) What information may I request under the Privacy Act?
The Privacy Act applies only to documents about individuals maintained by agencies in the executive branch of the federal government. It applies to these records only if they are in a "system of records," which means they are retrieved by an individual's name, social security number, or some other personal identifier. In other words, the Privacy Act does not apply to information about individuals in records that are filed under other subjects, such as organizations or events, unless the agency also indexes and retrieves them by individual names or other personal identifiers. Like the FOIA, the Privacy Act mainly applies to records held by federal agencies.
There are 10 exemptions to the Privacy Act under which an agency can withhold certain kinds of information from you. Examples of exempt records are those containing classified information on national security or those concerning criminal investigations. Another exemption often used by agencies is that which protects information that would identify a confidential source. For example, if an investigator questions a person about your qualifications for federal employment and that person agrees to answer only if his identity is protected, then his name or any information that would identify him can be withheld. The 10 exemptions are set out in the Act.
If you are interested in more details, you should read the Privacy Act in its entirety. Though the Act is too lengthy to publish as part of this brochure, it is readily available. It is printed in the U.S. Code (Section 552a of Title 5), which can be found in many public and school libraries.
(3) Whom do I contact at the Corporation regarding my Privacy Act request? What address do I send my request?
All Privacy Act requests are handled by the FOIA Officer and are therefore sent to the Corporation's FOIA Officer for processing. As with FOIA, Privacy Act requests can be submitted in the same three ways. Refer to paragraph 2 under The Freedom of Information Act. Please ensure that, for requests that are mailed, the outside of the envelop clearly states "Privacy Act Request." Also, a request may be submitted to review any records that are found as a result of the Privacy Act request rather than have the records sent to the requester. If this is the case, the requester will be notified when these records are available for viewing and can make arrangements with the Privacy Act Officer to come to the Corporation's reading room to view the records.
(4) How do I know if an agency has a file on me?
If you think the Corporation has a file pertaining to you, you may write to the Privacy Act Officer or head of the agency. Agencies are generally required to inform you, upon request, whether or not they have files on you. In addition, agencies are required to report publicly the existence of all systems of records they keep on individuals. The Office of the Federal Register publishes a listing of each agency's systems of records notices, including exemptions, as well as its Privacy Act regulations. The multi - volume work, Privacy Act Issuances Compilation, is updated every two years and can be found in most large reference and university libraries.
(5) What information do I have to provide to the Corporation to receive information? How do I request information under the Privacy Act?
The Corporation, as do other agencies, require some proof of identity before we will give you your records. Therefore, it is a good idea to enclose proof of identity (such as a copy of your driver's license) with your full name and address. Do not send the original documents. Remember to sign your request for information, since your signature is a form of identification. (A notarized signature is better and is required by many agencies.) If an agency needs more proof of identity before releasing your files, it will let you know. Give as much information as possible as to why you believe the Corporation has records about you.
(6) What about costs for getting records under the Privacy Act?
Under the Privacy Act, the Corporation can charge only for the cost of copying records for you, not for time spent locating them.
(7) How long will it take to answer my request?
Under the terms of the Privacy Act, the Corporation is not required to reply to a request within a given period of time. However, most agencies have adopted the 10 - day period in their regulations. If you do not receive any response within 4 weeks or so, you might wish to write again, enclosing a copy of your original request.
(8) What if I find that the Corporation has incorrect information about me in the files?
The Privacy Act requires agencies maintaining personal information about individuals to keep complete, accurate, timely, and relevant files. If, after seeing your file, you believe that it contains incorrect information and should be amended, write to the Privacy Act official for the Corporation. Include all pertinent documentation for each change you are requesting. You will be informed if further proof is needed. The Act requires the Corporation to notify you of the receipt of such an amendment request within 10 working days of receipt. If your request for amendment is granted, the Corporation will tell you precisely what will be done to amend the record. You may appeal any denial. Even if the Corporation denies your appeal, you have the right to submit a statement explaining why you think the record is wrong and the agency must attach your statement to the record involved. The Corporation must also tell you of your right to go to court and have a judge review the denial of your appeal.
(9) What can I do if I am denied information requested under the Privacy Act?
There is no required procedure for Privacy Act appeals, but the Corporation will advise you of its own appeal procedure when it makes a denial. Should the Corporation deny your appeal, you may take the matter to court. If you win your case, you may be awarded court costs and attorney's fees.
A Comparison of the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act
(1) What is the relationship between FOIA and the Privacy Act?
Although the two laws were enacted for different purposes, there is some similarity in their provisions. Both the FOIA and the Privacy Act give people the right of access to records held by agencies of the federal government. The FOIA's access rights are given to "any person," but the Privacy Act's access rights are only for the individual who is the subject of the records sought. The FOIA applies to all records of federal agencies. However, the Privacy Act applies only to federal agency records in "systems of records" which contain information about an individual and are retrieved by the use of a name or personal identifier. Each law has a somewhat different set of fees, time limits, and exemptions from its rights of access. If you request records about yourself under both laws, federal agencies may withhold the records from you only to the extent the records are exempt under both laws.
If the information you want pertains to the activities of federal agencies or of another person, you should make your request under the FOIA, which covers all agency records. If the information you want is about yourself and you wish to avoid possible search fees, you should make the request under the Privacy Act, which covers most records of agencies that pertain to individuals. Sometimes you can use the FOIA to help you get records about yourself that are not in a Privacy Act "system of records." However, if the records you seek are covered only by the FOIA, you must "reasonably describe" them and you may be charged search fees. If you are in doubt about which law applies or would better suit your needs, you may refer to both in your request letter.
(2) Can I request information about other people?
The FOIA contains a very important provision concerning personal privacy: Exemption 6. It protects you from others who may seek information about you, but it also may block you if you seek information about others. The FOIA's Exemption 6 permits an agency to withhold information about individuals if disclosing it would be a "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." This includes, for example, almost all of the information in medical files and much of the information in personnel files.
The FOIA's Exemption 6 cannot be used to deny you access to information about yourself, only to deny you information about other persons. To be covered by Exemption 6, the information requested must be (1) about an identifiable individual, (2) an invasion of the individual's privacy if disclosed to others, and (3) "clearly unwarranted" to disclose. Release of information about an individual is considered an invasion of privacy if he or she could reasonably object because of its personal nature or its possible adverse effects upon himself or herself or family. But such information is not protected by Exemption 6 if the injury to the individual is outweighed by a public interest favoring disclosure. For example, home addresses are generally exempt from release for unspecified or random uses such as commercial solicitation, but are not exempt from release to state income tax authorities for state law enforcement. If you were seeking information about a federal employee's working status, an agency usually would disclose at least his or her name, grade, salary, job title, and permanent work location, but an agency will not usually disclose similar information about an employee of a private business. However, federal employees do receive some privacy protection. For example, if you want to see the details of an investigative report which led to an employee's demotion, an agency might decide that disclosure of these details is not justified on public interest grounds. This would be so even though the information generally would be available to the demoted employee.
Sample FOIA Request Letter
Corporation for National and Community Service
Office of the General Counsel
Attn: Freedom of Information Act Officer
1201 New York Avenue, N.W., Room 10606
Washington D.C., 20525
Dear Freedom of Information Act Officer:
Under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. subsection 552, I am requesting access to, or copies of [identify the records as clearly and specifically as possible]. If there are any fees for copying or searching for the records, please let me know before you fill my request. [Or, please supply the records without informing me of the cost if the fees do not exceed $ ______, which I agree to pay.] Optional: I am requesting this information because [state the reason(s) if you think it will help you obtain the information]. If you deny all or any part of this request, please cite each specific exemption you think justifies your refusal to release the information and notify me of appeal procedures available under the law. Optional: If you have any questions about handling this request, you may telephone me at __________(home phone) or at ___________(office phone).