What is a FOIA Request and How Do I File?

What is a FOIA Request?

A FOIA request is a written document that is sent to a Freedom of Information Act officer, and it makes a request for records. Notice first and foremost, it’s got to be written, so telephoning a federal agency and asking for records is not going to be a FOIA request. Notice also, it has to go to a Freedom of Information Act officer. If you’re walking by a federal building and you hand a record request to someone who’s mowing the lawn of that federal building. Have you made a FOIA request? No, you haven’t. Why? Because the person mowing the lawn odds are they’re not going to be a Freedom of Information Act officer. And last but not least, it’s got to ask for records. Notice you can’t ask the government to make up records. You can’t ask them to invent a photograph, invent a database.
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You have to ask for a specific record or type of written document that’s already been produced. The Freedom of Information Act doesn’t allow you to ask questions of a federal agency. Hey, what time is it in Washington, D.C.? What day of the month was someone born? Those are questions about information, but they’re not questions about records. In fact, the Freedom of Information Act shouldn’t even really be called the Freedom of Information Act. It should be called the Freedom to Ask for Records Act, because that’s what you have the right to do. Ask for records that have already been produced.

Here’s a list of some things that should be included in a FOIA request. First and foremost, your name, your telephone number, your email address, your address, some basic information about you. So the person that receives this FOIA request can contact you. You want to make sure that you also have the time period for your request.

The federal government has been around for a long time, so you want to make sure you’re asking for records that have been created or acquired by that federal agency within two dates. Otherwise, they won’t know what years to even be searching. Another important thing is to think about the geography of your request. Where are these records? Are these records for the entire world? Are they for your part of the United States? Did this incident occur in a specific place? That’s another way to limit your request and to help the agency figure out what records they might have. That would be responsive to your requests.

Another big thing is to make sure you ask for a fee waiver if you’re entitled to one. What’s a fee waiver? Well, the federal government requires that you pay for the search for the records, and so you are obligated to pay twenty five dollars for a search. But if it costs more than that, you want to make sure that if you’re eligible, you ask for a fee waiver. Public interest organizations and journalists are the most common categories of people who get fee waivers.

I keep using the word records. These are the types of records that you might consider asking for, or if you don’t think they apply, then don’t ask for. Let’s talk about the obvious documents, letters, emails, text messages, reports. Things that are tangible videos, audio tape, recordings, transcripts. These are all examples of the word records. When in doubt, I usually ask for all records. I use that phrase “all records”. But when I am zeroing in on something, I really know that an agency has that I want, I ask for that type of record. In your request. I recommend that people discuss why they want the records. The reason for that is that the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act, doesn’t really need to know why you want the records. But if you include a paragraph in your request that explains why you want the records that will help the agency try to find the records that you’re asking for.

To file a Freedom of Information Act request, it’s important that you first locate the name and address of the Freedom of Information Act officer of the agency that you’re asking for the records. It’s really important that you send the records request using certified mail return receipt requested. You could go through an agency’s email system, you could go through their FOIA portal. But the problem with that is it requires them to respond to your request where if you send the request through the mail, you have a postal record when they receive it. It’s very important to know that a FOIA request isn’t valid until the agency receives the request, not when you make the request. It’s when they received the request. 


When am I going to get my records? That’s a question I get asked at least three times a day. And the answer to that question is basically twofold. One, there’s a legal answer and two, there’s a practical answer. The legal answer is that within 20 working days of the receipt of the request, the federal agency has to make a determination of whether they are going to give you the records. And if they are, they have to quote “promptly” respond to the request and give you the records. The practical answer is it really depends on the breadth of your request.

If you’re asking for 20 years worth of documents, you’re not going to get them in 20 days. If you’re asking for five years of records, you’re not going to get them in 20 days. If you’re asking for records from an agency that’s noted for backlogs to provide records such as the FBI, you’re not going to get your records in 20 working days. So it really depends. And what I found is that judicial reviews, i.e. lawsuits do tend to speed up the agency’s response to a records request. 

What is an anonymous request and how do I submit it?

People ask me, do I have to make the request myself, why can’t I ask you to make the request? So sometimes we call these anonymous requests because it’s the law firm Sorenson Law Office that’s making the request, not you. We’re not making the request in your name. We’re making the request in our name and that preserves your anonymity. You don’t have to have your name associated with your request. We’re the ones making the request. The upside of that is obviously anonymity. But the downside is that remember, you’re entitled to records about yourself. You’re not necessarily allowed to ask for records about other people. How fair would it be if you could ask for your neighbors tax returns from the IRS? Those things are controlled by exemptions under FOIA. So the good news is we can make anonymous requests for people. We do that. The bad news is we don’t have the right to request for records on you through an anonymous request.

An anonymous request is a request submitted by someone other than you, meaning if you hire a law firm like Sorenson, the law office, we can make a request and we can do it either in your name, which is not an anonymous request, or we can make it in our name, which makes it anonymous to you. And the good news is you can get records that are about other people and other events, but you can’t get records on you. The person who hires us because we don’t necessarily have the right to. Confidential records about you, so if you have questions on how to navigate the FOIA process, please feel free to give me a call and I’d be happy to talk with you.