The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which can be found
in Title 5 of the United States Code, section 552, was enacted
in 1966 and provides that any person has the right to request
access to federal agency records or information. All agencies
of the United States government are required to disclose records
upon receiving a written request for them, except for those
records that are protected from disclosure by the nine exemptions
and three exclusions of the FOIA. This right of access is
enforceable in court. The federal FOIA does not, however,
provide access to records held by state or local government
agencies, or by private businesses or individuals. All states
have their own statutes governing public access to state and
local records; state agencies should be consulted for further
information about their access procedures.
This Reference Guide is designed to familiarize you with
the specific procedures for making a FOIA request to the United
States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Office of the Assistant
Secretary for of Civil Rights (OASCR).
It is important to understand that there is no central office
in the government that processes FOIA requests for all federal
agencies. Each agency responds to requests for its own records.
Therefore, before sending a request to OASCR you should determine
whether this agency is likely to have the records you are
Other general sources of information about how to make a FOIA request include:
II. Access to Certain Records Without a FOIA Request
All agencies make certain types of records, created by the agency on or after November 1, 1996, available electronically. If you have access to the internet, you will not need to make a FOIA request to obtain access to these records. Specific records that can be found on the internet include:
* The Final Agency Decisions issued by OASCR are not posted due to privacy concerns.
OASCR's FOIA homepage can be accessed at: http://www.ascr.usda.gov/foia_cr.html
This site includes our annual FOIA reports, information on
FOIA exemptions, where and how to submit a FOIA request or
appeal, and a sample FOIA request letter.
III. Where to Make a FOIA Request
Your request must be in writing. Indicate that you are making
a request under FOIA, and send the request to the following
USDA Office of Adjudication
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250-9410
VIA FACSIMILE: (202) 720-0953
VIA E-MAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org
(NOTE: While e-mail attachments are often an important and legitimate means of conducting business, they also have the potential to cause great harm to our e-mail infrastructure, as well as to individual workstations. Please place the text of your FOIA request into the 'body' of the email message.)
IV. How to Make a FOIA Request
A FOIA request can be made for any agency record. This does
not mean, however, that the Office of the Assistant Secretary
for Civil Rights will disclose any record sought. There are
statutory exemptions that authorize the withholding of information
of a sensitive nature. When the Office of the Assistant Secretary
for Civil Rights does withhold information from you, it must
specify which exemption
of the FOIA permits the withholding. FOIA does not require
agencies to do research, to analyze data, to answer written
questions, or to create records in order to respond to a request.
Although certain information may be required from a FOIA
requester, no special form is required by OASCR . However,
an individual may choose to use our sample
FOIA request letter. Requests must be in writing, either
handwritten or typed. Requests may be mailed, faxed or sent
Whenever you request information about yourself, you may
be asked to provide either a notarized statement or a statement
signed under penalty of perjury stating that you are the person
that you claim to be. This will ensure that private information
about you is not disclosed to anyone else. When submitting
a Privacy Act (PA) request, please use our Sample
Privacy Act Requester Letter.
When making your request, you should be as specific as possible
with regard to names, dates, places, events, subjects, etc.
You do not have to give a requested record's name or title,
but the more specific you are about the record or type of
records requested, the more likely it will be that the agency
will locate those records.
When OASCR receives your FOIA request, we will send you a letter acknowledging the request and assigning it a control number. If you do not provide the necessary information, OASCR will not process your request, but will advise you of what additional information is required.
Under certain circumstances, you may be entitled to receive more information under the PA than under the FOIA. Under the FOIA, anyone can request any agency record. PA requests are more limited and can be made only by U.S. citizens or aliens lawfully admitted for permanent U.S. residence, who are seeking information about themselves, which is in a system of records maintained under their names or other personal identifiers. Even if a request does not mention the PA, OASCR automatically treats requests as being made under both the FOIA and the PA whenever it is appropriate to do so. In this way, requesters receive the maximum amount of information available to them by law.
V. Response Times
Under the statute, all federal agencies are required to respond
to a FOIA request within twenty working days, excluding Saturdays,
Sundays, and legal holidays. This period does not begin until
the request is actually received by the office that maintains
the records sought. An agency is not required to send out
the releasable documents by the last business day; it can
send you a letter informing you of its decision and then send
out the documents within a reasonable time afterward.
Under the FOIA, an agency may extend the response time for an additional ten business days when:
When a determination on your request is not made within the
deadline described above and you have not agreed to a different
response deadline, you may file suit in federal court to obtain
a response. If, however, the court concludes that you have
unreasonably refused to limit your request or to accept an
alternate timetable for response, the court may find that
the agency's failure to comply within the statutory time period
is justified. The court also may approve a delay if it concludes
that the agency is experiencing an unexpected, substantial
increase in the number of requests received. In addition,
the court may excuse the lack of a timely response if the
agency demonstrates that it has a backlog of requests on a
first-come/first-served basis, and that it is making reasonable
progress in reducing its backlog. In such cases, the court
may postpone its consideration of your lawsuit until the agency
reaches your request in its processing backlog.
OASCR has established a FOIA Requester Service Center in compliance
Order 13392: Improving Agency Disclosure of Information.
2005/pdf/05-24255.pdf) The FOIA Requester Service Center is the initial point of contact for FOIA requesters to obtain information concerning the status of their request, and information about the agency's FOIA response. For more information contact:
FOIA Requester Service Center
Telephone number: (202) 720-5212
Fax: (202) 690-7442
Requesters who have concerns about the service they are receiving
from the FOIA Requester Service Center may raise their concerns
with our FOIA Public Liaison:
Telephone number: (202) 720-5212
Fax: (202) 720-0953
VI. Expedited Processing
Under certain conditions, you may be entitled to have your
request processed on an expedited basis. However, you should
realize that whenever a FOIA request is expedited for a particular
requester, it results in an additional delay for previous
requesters who have been waiting for a response. Therefore,
in an effort to treat all requesters equitably, OASCR ordinarily
will process a FOIA request ahead of others only in cases
in which there will be a threat to someone's life or physical
safety, or where an individual will suffer the loss of substantial
due process rights if the records are not processed on an
The FOIA also requires that requests be processed on an expedited basis if made by a person primarily engaged in disseminating information to the public and the information is urgently needed to inform the public concerning some actual or alleged government activity. Requests are not expedited under this provision merely because the requester is a representative of the news media.
A statement setting forth the reasons your request should be expedited must accompany all requests for expedited processing. You should certify that the reasons you have given are true and correct. The agency will be required to notify you of its decision whether to grant expedited processing within no more than ten days after receiving your letter. If the agency denies your request for expedited processing, you will be advised of your right to submit an administrative appeal of that denial.
There is no initial fee to file a FOIA request. However, an agency is entitled to charge certain fees, which depend on the category of requester you fall into. For the purposes of fees only, the FOIA divides requesters into three categories:
OASCR currently charges 20 cents per page for photocopying.
In all cases, if the total fee does not exceed a minimum amount,
currently $25.00, OASCR will not charge any fee at all.
You should always include in your request letter a specific statement limiting the amount that you are willing to pay in fees. If you do not do so, you will be asked to express your commitment to pay the estimated fees and the processing of your request will be suspended until you agree to do so. You ordinarily will not be required to actually pay the fees until the records have been processed and are ready to be sent to you. If, however, you have failed to pay fees within 30 days of billing, or if the estimated fees exceed $250, you may be required to pay the estimated fees before the records are processed. If you agree to pay fees and then fail to do so within 30 days of billing, you may be charged interest on your overdue balance and OASCR will not process any further requests from you until payment has been made in full. If you agree to pay fees for searching for records, be aware that you may be required to pay such fees even if the search does not locate any responsive records or, if records located are withheld as entirely exempt.
VIII. Fee Waivers
If you expect or are advised that a fee will be charged,
you may request a waiver of those fees. In order to determine
if you are eligible for a fee waiver, you will be asked to
address the fee waiver factors.
Fee waivers are limited to situations in which a requester
can show that the disclosure of the requested information
is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute
significantly to public understanding of the operations and
activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial
interest of the requester. Requests for fee waivers from individuals
who are seeking records on themselves usually are denied under
this standard because such disclosures usually will not result
in any increase of the public's understanding of government
operations and activities. In addition, a requester's inability
to pay fees is not a legal basis for granting a fee waiver.
IX. Initial Request Determinations
Once OASCR has processed your request and any fee issues have
been resolved, the agency will send you a written initial
determination. The FOIA provides access to all federal agency
records (or portions of those records), except for those records
that are withheld under any of nine exemptions, or three exclusions
(reasons for which an agency may withhold records from a requester).
The determination letter will advise you of whether any information
is being withheld pursuant to one or more of the exemptions.
When a page is being withheld in its entirety, OASCR will either
specify the number of pages being withheld or will make a
reasonable effort to estimate the volume of the withheld information.
The exemptions authorize federal agencies to withhold information covering:
The three exclusions, which are rarely used, pertain to especially
sensitive law enforcement and national security matters. Even
if information may be withheld under the FOIA, the agency
may disclose it as a matter of administrative discretion if
it is not prohibited by any law and would not cause any foreseeable
harm, although the agency is not legally obligated to do so.
You may file an administrative appeal if you:
Requesters will be advised of their right to file an appeal
in the initial determination letter sent by OASCR or in the
letter denying a request for expedited processing or a fee
waiver. The appeal must be received in writing within 45 days
from the date of the agency's determination letter. Both the
front of the envelope and the appeal letter should contain
the notation "Freedom of Information Act Appeal."
There is no specific form or particular language needed to
file an administrative appeal. It is helpful if you include
the initial request number that OASCR assigned to your request
and the date of the response. You may explain the reasons
why you disagree with the agency's action, but a simple statement
that you are appealing the decision ordinarily is sufficient.
If, however, you are appealing because you believe there are
additional records that have not been located in response
to your request, you should specify why you think such records
exist and, if possible, where you believe they might be located.
XI. Judicial Review
If you still believe that OASCR has not handled your FOIA request in accordance with the law after your appeal has been decided, you have the right to challenge the agency's action in a lawsuit filed in federal court, through the litigation process known as "judicial review." Before doing so, you ordinarily will be required first to have filed an administrative appeal and to have received a response. However, if OASCR fails to respond to either your initial request or your appeal within the time limits discussed above, you may file suit as soon as the time limits have expired. To initiate a court action, you may file suit in a federal district court in any of the following places:
The final administrative appeal determination letter will advise you of your right to seek judicial review and will specify how to do so. You have six years to file suit from the date of the agency's final determination letter.