Brent Taylor, the plaintiff in this case, was an avid antique aircraft enthusiast. His friend, Greg Herrick, held the same interests and filed a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request with the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to get the specifications of a rare vintage aircraft. The FAA refused the request on the grounds that the specifications were “protected trade secrets”. Herrick proceeded to file a suit against the FAA to access the specifications. The district court ruled in favor of the FAA, and the Tenth Circuit Court affirmed their decision. One month later, Taylor filed another FOIA requesting access to the specifications. Upon denial of the request, Taylor filed a suit with the District of Columbia Federal Court.
The court held that Taylor had already been “virtually represented” through Herrick’s case. The Taylor v. Sturgell case questions whether the dismissal of a claim based on a FOIA request prevents a second individual from bringing a similar claim on the grounds of “visual representation?”
The National Whistleblower Center (“NWC”) worked with the National Security Archive, OpenTheGovernment.org, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of Press, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to submit an amici brief to the Supreme Court in support of Taylor. The brief points out that “The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides a right for any person to make a FOIA request seeking federal agency records for any purpose.” It furthers that the FOIA “also provides a private right of action for any complainant – a person who has been denied records requested under the law – to bring a lawsuit in federal court to enforce the FOIA. This private right of action is a crucial component of the law because the FOIA is enforced solely by individuals who bring lawsuits against federal agencies.”
The brief reminds the court that “the broad availability of FOIA is also critical to the success of the law, which does not place any individual or group above another with regard to access to government records.” It concludes by explaining that “FOIA requesters have developed a professional community that exchanges information and ideas. Those relationships should not be imputed to create some sort of “special relationship” that is evidence of virtual representation.”
The supreme court, in a unanimous decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, decided to protect whistleblowers. The court explained that virtual representation should be applied very rarely. The prior lower court decision was vacated and sent back to the district court for a fresh trial.