D.C. Circuit Disagrees with DOJ Handling of FOIA Request

This case (American Immigration Lawyers Association v. Executive Office for Immigration Review) involves a request by the AILA (American Immigration Lawyers Association) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for records relating to complaints filed against immigration judges, who are federal employees working under the Department of Justice (DOJ). AILA was looking for a pattern of problems with certain judges in their handling of immigration appeals.

When six months went by with no response, AILA sued in district court. This led to what the appeals court characterized in its decision as “a series of rolling disclosures” by DOJ. Eventually (after about a year and a half after the FOIA request), some 16,000 pages had been released involving 767 files involving complaints against immigration judges. While the files had detailed information as to date, nature and result of each complaint, the agency redacted certain information it declared to be exempt. Some of these redactions were under Exemption 6, which relates to personnel files—DOJ withheld individual immigration judges’ names and other identifying information and substituted a code for each judge so the requester could connect various complaints to a particular judge. DOJ went further and blanked out information that was not exempt under FOIA but that the department felt was not responsive to the request even though found in a document that was deemed responsive.