There are many uses for FOIA. As I’ve mentioned before, almost anyone could benefit from obtaining public records. Activists, journalists, concerned citizens can use FOIA to prove wrongdoing, develop a story, or just learn more about their community.
But one important use for FOIA is lawsuits. In fact, one of the reasons I started this service is in order to assist lawyers in obtaining documents they need to bolster a case. (If that describes you, get in touch here.) Government records obtained through FOIA can also be exculpatory — for example, a police report in which a defendant was a victim of a crime in a certain location can be exculpatory evidence if that defendant is accused of committing a crime elsewhere at the exact same time.
There are numerous examples of this, but let me share one in particular because, well, it involves me.
I worked with a religious group called The Satanic Temple (TST) to obtain emails between members of the Scottsdale, AZ City Council regarding TST’s request to deliver an invocation. TST was denied, and they suspected that it was an instance of religious discrimination. They sought my help in finding out.
So I requested and obtained the thousands of emails pursuant to the request. Most of them were from outraged members of the public, as is to be expected. But the council members’ responses to the complaints appeared to show discrimination. For example, the council members didn’t hide the fact that they did not want TST to deliver an invocation. And an email between council members revealed that they tried to book as many other religious groups to deliver an invocation as possible so as to prevent TST from doing so.
Anyway, long story short, TST is now suing, and the emails I obtained were attached to the complaint as exhibits. You can read more about the lawsuit here.
I’ll also briefly mention the time the apartment I was living in became uninhabitable. After talking to lawyers and considering pursuing legal action, I requested inspection documents from the City of Boston, revealing that I was certainly not the only one enduring poor living conditions, but that it had been a problem for years. Had I taken them to court, you bet I would have used those documents as ammunition.
Another way lawyers can use FOIA is in helping an individual sort out mistakes made by agencies such as Social Security. Someone on disability may have had their payments suspended and wish to know why. A request for their personal agency file could reveal that Social Security mistakenly thinks this person is in jail, for example. I have also seen FOIA requests for personal agency files sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to assist with navigating the immigration process.
Rather than simply being used to support or bolster a case, FOIA can be used to inspire a lawsuit as well. I don’t have any examples of this on hand, but someone could, for instance, choose to sue the USDA for caving to pressure from the beef industry when one of their employees encouraged his coworkers in an internal newsletter to try Meatless Monday, something I discovered through FOIA. Sue for what, you ask? I am not sure, it just seems like maybe they deserve it.