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How to File a FOIA Request

Michael Kuzma Attorney at Law June 20, 2024

Wooden cubes with word FOIA and gavelThe Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that helps keep the government open and honest, allowing people to request and see government records, with some exceptions. This helps everyone know what the government is doing and builds trust because it shows that government actions can be looked at and questioned. 

FOIA is crucial because it supports democracy by helping people stay informed. When people can get access to public records, they can take part in discussions, hold elected officials accountable, and push for changes based on real information. This makes democracy work better since informed citizens are essential for it. 

FOIA also helps prevent corruption and the misuse of public money. By letting people see government documents, the law makes sure that government workers act more honestly. Knowing that their actions can be inspected by the public makes them behave more ethically, which leads to better and fairer government for everyone.  

Whether you are a journalist, researcher, or simply a curious citizen, understanding how to file a FOIA request is essential. At my office, I’m here to help you fill out an FOIA request and guide you through the entire process step-by-step, informing you of common mistakes to avoid, offering tips for success, and providing valuable resources to help you along the way. 

Introduction to FOIA

The FOIA was enacted in 1966 to ensure public access to government records. This legislation states that any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information. However, there are nine exemptions and three exclusions that protect certain records from disclosure. 

New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL)

In New York, you may come across the term FOIL, which stands for Freedom of Information Law. This can undoubtedly cause confusion, but understanding the distinction is crucial. FOIA is a federal law that provides the public with the right to request access to records from any federal agency.  

On the other hand, FOIL pertains specifically to New York State, granting the public the right to access government records within the state. Essentially, if you need information from a federal agency, you would submit a FOIA request; if you need information from a New York State agency, you would submit a FOIL request. Both laws serve the purpose of promoting transparency and accountability, but their scopes and jurisdictions differ. 

Understanding the Purpose and Scope of FOIA Requests

FOIA requests serve to promote transparency within the government by allowing the public to obtain information about federal agency activities. The scope of FOIA is broad and applies to all federal agencies and departments, including the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, and many others. 

FOIA does not apply to records held by Congress, the courts, or state and local governments. Each state has its own public records laws, often referred to as "Sunshine Laws" or "Open Records Laws." 

Step-by-Step Guide on How to File a FOIA Request

1. Identifying the Correct Agency 

The first step in filing a FOIA request is identifying the correct agency that holds the records you seek. Each federal agency has its own FOIA office and procedures. Research the agency's website to find information about their FOIA process and determine which office handles the records you need. 

2. Writing the Request Letter 

A well-crafted FOIA request letter is crucial for obtaining the information you seek. Here are some key elements to include in your request letter: 

  • Contact information: Provide your full name, address, email, and phone number. 

  • Description of records: Be as specific as possible about the records you are requesting. Include details such as dates, names, and subjects to help the agency locate the records. 

  • Fee waiver: Request a fee waiver if the information is in the public interest and your ability to pay is limited. 

  • Format: Specify the format in which you would like to receive the records (e.g., paper copies, electronic format). 

  • Expedited processing: If you need the records quickly, explain why expedited processing is necessary. 

3. Submitting the Request 

Submit your FOIA request to the appropriate agency's FOIA office. Most agencies accept requests via email, fax, or mail. Some agencies also have online portals for submitting FOIA requests. 

4. Tracking the Request 

After submitting your request, the agency will acknowledge receipt and assign a tracking number. Use this tracking number to monitor the status of your request. Federal agencies are required to respond to FOIA requests within 20 business days, but this timeframe can be extended in certain circumstances. 

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Filing a FOIA Request

Filing a FOIA request can be straightforward, but there are common pitfalls to avoid: 

  1. Lack of specificity: Vague or overly broad requests can lead to delays or denials. Provide as much detail as possible about the records you seek. 

  1. Incorrect agency: Sending your request to the wrong agency can result in unnecessary delays. Ensure you have identified the correct agency. 

  1. Ignoring fee waivers: Forgetting to request a fee waiver can result in unexpected costs. Always consider requesting a waiver if applicable. 

  1. Not following up: If you don't receive a response within the statutory timeframe, follow up with the agency to check on the status of your request. 

Tips for a Successful FOIA Request

To increase your chances of a successful FOIA request, consider the following tips: 

  • Research: Understand the agency's FOIA process and any specific guidelines they provide. 

  • Be clear and concise: Write a clear and concise request letter that includes all necessary details. 

  • Use sample letters: Look for sample FOIA request letters online to help you structure your own. 

  • Keep records: Maintain copies of all correspondence with the agency, including your original request and any follow-up communications. 

  • Be patient: FOIA requests can take time to process, so be patient and persistent. 

You Have Rights. Use Them.

Filing a FOIA request is a powerful way to hold government agencies accountable and access important information. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can navigate the FOIA process with confidence and increase your chances of a successful outcome. 

If you have any questions or need assistance with a FOIA request, contact Michael Kuzma Attorney at Law. With over two decades of legal experience, I am committed to fighting for transparency and justice. Let's work together to uncover the information you need.