Tuesday, August 30, 2022

MFIA Case Against State Department FOIA Violations Moves Forward

Stone archway in the courtyard of Sterling Law Building

The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) has cleared a major hurdle in a case challenging the State Department’s alleged habitual flouting of deadlines to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Last week, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin denied the State Department’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit’s “pattern or practice” count. The lawsuit will now move forward into discovery.

Filed on behalf of Marquette University law professor Ryan Scoville, the MFIA lawsuit alleges that the State Department systematically ignores the law requiring it to release information in a timely manner when someone requests it. According to the lawsuit, those seeking information from the department must typically wait for years. 

Scoville frequently uses FOIA requests for his research on U.S. diplomacy. Between 2014 and 2021, he submitted six such requests to the State Department concerning ambassadorial nominees, the use and transfer of military equipment, and Congressional diplomatic communications. In every case, the lawsuit contends, the State failed to respond within the mandated time or manner. In one instance, Scoville did not receive a response to an April 2014 request until May 2018 — more than four years later and only after initiating legal action against the State Department.

Scoville’s suit addresses the state’s alleged failure to provide a substantive response to a March 2020 FOIA request. The suit also asserts a claim based on the agency’s alleged systematic failure to make records available within the time prescribed by Congress. Scoville contends that the agency has a policy or practice of violating FOIA that will impair his lawful access to information in the future.

The State Department moved to dismiss the “pattern or practice” claim at the outset, alleging that Scoville’s complaint did not plausibly establish a policy or practice of FOIA violations but simply reflected unavoidable delays occasioned by routine staffing and budgetary constraints. Reviewing the repeated delays alleged by Scoville, the district court found that he has grounds to claim that the delays he has experienced demonstrate a broader pattern in the agency’s responses to FOIA, enabling the claim to proceed.

“We are thrilled that the court found that Professor Scoville’s lawsuit sufficiently alleges that the State Department has a policy or practice of violating FOIA’s deadlines,” said MFIA student Arjun Malik ’24, who worked on the case. “Now that our client’s claims can proceed, we look forward to proving the State Department’s policy or practice of egregious FOIA delays in court.”

The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) is a law student clinic dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression by providing pro bono legal services, pursuing impact litigation and developing policy initiatives.