Background on the Guidelines and FOIA

On March 15, 2022, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) released new guidelines favoring the disclosure of federal agency records under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, FOIA established a statutory right of public access to executive branch records. At a high-level, FOIA provides that any person has a legally enforceable right to obtain federal agency records subject to the Act to the extent that such records are not protected from public disclosure by one of FOIA’s nine exemptions. The Supreme Court has explained that “the basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry,” which is “needed to check against corruption and hold the governors accountable to the governed.”

The DOJ’s new guidelines direct federal departments and agencies to apply a presumption of openness in administering FOIA and explicitly state that the DOJ will not defend nondisclosure decisions that fail to do so. Under the new guidelines, the executive branch should not withhold requested information that might fall within one of FOIA’s exemptions unless the relevant agency can identify a foreseeable harm or legal bar to disclosure. The guidelines also remind federal agencies that FOIA requires the proactive disclosure of records and emphasize that such agencies should make records more readily accessible without requiring individuals to file FOIA requests. As an example, the guidelines note that the DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review will no longer require individuals to file FOIA requests to obtain copies of their own records of immigration court proceedings.

Continue Reading New DOJ Guidelines Regarding FOIA Create Presumption of Openness

In its recent decision in United States ex. rel. Schutte v. SuperValu Inc., the Seventh Circuit joined four other circuits in holding that the Supreme Court’s objective scienter standard articulated in the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) case Safeco Insurance Company of America v. Burr applies to the False Claims Act (FCA). Under the objective scienter standard, a defendant who acts under an incorrect interpretation of a statute does not do so with reckless disregard—and therefore scienter, a required element of a FCA violation—if (i) the interpretation was objectively reasonable, and (ii) no authoritative guidance cautioned the defendant against it.

Notably for companies that contract with the federal government, this decision narrows the scope of their liability under the FCA. It also highlights the importance of such companies identifying and acting in accordance with authoritative guidance—a term of art whose precise contours remain undefined.
Continue Reading Seventh Circuit Holds Objective Scienter Standard Applies to FCA