D.C. adopts federal guidelines for attorney fees in FOIA cases

The Fraternal Order of Police, Metropolitan Police Department Labor Committee v. District of Columbia

Local courts should follow the same guideline as the federal courts to award attorney’s fees to prevailing plaintiffs in the District of Columbia’s Freedom of Information Act cases. The ruling marks an important milestone in spelling out attorney fees reimbursement since D.C. adopted its FOIA statute in 1976.

In an opinion issued on August 23, a three-judge panel explained that while the city’s FOIA law is different from the federal FOIA statute, local trial judges should use the four-factor test that federal judges rely on to decide whether to award attorney fees.

The ruling is a loss for the city’s police union, which appealed a District of Columbia Superior Court judge’s decision denying attorney fees after the union prevailed in a FOIA case against the city. The appeals court found that Judge Anita Josey-Herring correctly used the four-factor test and upheld her finding that the union failed to satisfy enough of the criteria. The court also rejected the union’s argument that prevailing parties should be automatically entitled to fees. (The Blog of Legal Times)

About the case

The case involved a request the union submitted in May 2009 for police department emails between top officials referencing Baumann or the union. The city didn't produce the emails, prompting the union to sue in September 2009. After the city continued to fail to meet deadlines, Josey-Herring granted the union summary judgment in July 2010. (The Blog of Legal Times)

About the four-factor test

After nearly 40 years without addressing the issue, the appeals court held that in evaluating fee awards a lower court should consider the public benefit in the case, commercial benefit to the plaintiff, the nature of the plaintiff’s interest in the records and the reasonableness of the agency’s withholding. The four-part federal test stems from the 1992 caseTax Analysts v. United States Department of Justice decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. (D.C. Open Government Coalition)

Read more about the story

D.C. Open Government Coalition is a member of NFOIC. — eds.