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Nothing Personal: Supreme Court Denies Corporate Privacy Exception Under FOIA
Thomas J. Williams
Corporate documents provided to the government as part of an investigation of the company are not excepted from disclosure for “personal privacy” purposes under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In Federal Communications Comm. v. AT&T Inc., the Supreme Court held AT&T did not have a personal privacy interest in documents the company provided to the FCC during an investigation.
The suit arose from a FOIA request by a trade association - whose members included AT&T competitors - for all documents from the FCC Enforcement Bureau’s investigation of potential AT&T overcharges to the Commission. The Bureau withheld some documents on the basis that individuals identified in the AT&T documents had privacy rights warranting protection. The Bureau did not, however, extend this same protection to the corporation.
FOIA requires the federal government to produce documents upon request, unless they fall within one of several statutory exemptions. Law enforcement records that the disclosure of which “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, are not subject to disclosure” is one such exemption. The Bureau, however, refused to apply this provision to AT&T reasoning that “businesses do not possess personal privacy interests as required by the exemption.”
In an 8-0 decision, the Court agreed with the FCC and found the term “personal privacy” does not refer to the privacy of artificial persons. Looking to other statutory language as well as the plain meaning of “personal,” the Court reasoned that while “person” in a legal setting often refers to corporations there is little support that “personal” has the same denotation. “Personal privacy,” the Court found, “suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns - not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T.”
Although the opinion limits privacy-based exemptions for corporations, companies should still consider the exemptions as they pertain to individual employees. Documents and other information referencing individuals may still fall under FOIA protections.
For more information please visit the Public Law Practice Group page of the Haynes and Boone, LLP website, or contact any of the lawyers listed below. You may also view the alert in the PDF linked below.