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Monday, March 26, 2018
MFIA Clinic Moves for Summary Judgment in EPA FOIA Case
On March 20, the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School moved for partial summary judgment on behalf of the New York Times and reporter Eric Lipton in their Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, asserting that the agency must release EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s calendar—including the topics of his meetings and the names of the people he meets with—on a regular basis.
“This is a very important FOIA case that takes advantage of a significant new part of the law,” said Allison Douglis ’18, a law student working on the case. “In 2016, Congress recognized that agencies were frequently failing to make critical information available to the public before it went stale and amended FOIA to require agencies to affirmatively produce more information without waiting for specific requests. Our lawsuit seeks to enforce that requirement with respect to Administrator Pruitt’s calendar.”
The clinic initiated the lawsuit last year on behalf of the New York Times and Pulitzer prize–winning investigative reporter Eric Lipton, who has been chronicling the Trump administration’s efforts to remake the EPA, the top federal agency charged with safeguarding the environment and public health.
"We value the work the team at the Yale clinic is doing to support our journalism, and even more importantly, to promote greater transparency in government," Lipton said.
According to the clinic, when Trump appointee Scott Pruitt took over the EPA last year, he met almost exclusively with corporate executives, oil and gas lobbyists, and conservative activists. He spent relatively little time with environmental groups or public health advocates. But it took months for the public to discover the extent to which industry interests dominated Pruitt’s schedule because the new EPA chief had ended a decades-long tradition of informing the public about his official meetings.
Over the past year, multiple groups have sued the EPA under the Freedom of Information Act to access records of Pruitt’s appointments. The Yale clinic’s lawsuit goes a step further, demanding that the EPA proactively release the daily schedule of its top official, instead of forcing journalists to wait months in litigation only to receive a delayed snapshot of Pruitt's calendar.
In its brief filed this week, the clinic argued that the EPA is violating the law by holding back the details of Pruitt’s meetings. For more than 20 years, the Freedom of Information Act has required federal agencies to release records that are likely to be requested repeatedly. In 2016, Congress further strengthened this obligation to disclose, ordering agencies to automatically release any records that have been asked for at least three times under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Yale clinic’s lawsuit on behalf of the New York Times and Lipton is, to the clinic’s knowledge, the first to rely on this new section of the law. The EPA administrator’s detailed schedule of meetings, which remains the subject of frequent public information requests, is a prime example of a document that the government must release without waiting to be asked.
“This is exactly the kind of baroque bureaucratic inefficiency that Congress wanted to streamline when it updated the law in 2016,” Jeff Guo ’20 said.
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.
The team on this lawsuit included law students Allison Douglis ’18, Delbert Tran ’18, and Jeff Guo ’20. They were supervised by John Langford ’14 and Charles Sims ’76.