On March 1, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, holding unanimously that the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) exemption 7(C), which protects against unwarranted invasion of “personal privacy,” does not extend to corporations. After the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau began an investigation into a large mobile carrier’s pricing practices, a trade association representing some of the carrier’s competitors submitted a FOIA request seeking all pleadings and correspondence in the Bureau’s file relating to the investigation. FOIA requires federal agencies to make records and documents publicly available upon request, subject to several statutory exemptions. One of the exemptions, exemption 7(C), covers law enforcement records, the disclosure of which “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The carrier opposed the FOIA request, arguing that disclosure of the information in the file would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy under the 7(C) exemption. The FCC disagreed, finding that exemption 7(C) applied to the individuals identified in the company’s submissions, but not to the corporation itself. The company sought review in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the exemption did extend to the “personal privacy” of corporations, reasoning that “personal” is the adjective form of the term “person,” which Congress has defined to include corporations. On Appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, holding that corporations do not have “personal privacy” for the purposes of exemption 7(C). The court based its holding on the fact that while “person” may be a defined term in the statute, “personal” is not, and when a statute does not define a term the court gives the term its ordinary meaning. Accordingly, as the term “personal” ordinarily refers to individuals and often is used to mean precisely the opposite of business-related, the Court found that it was unlikely that “personal” in exemption 7(C) was intended to refer to corporations. The Court also cited to an Attorney General memorandum that took the position that exemption 7(C) does not apply to corporations.
TIP: Although FOIA exemption 7(C) does not apply to corporations, corporations may rely on other exemptions to protect themselves from FOIA requests, such as exemption 4, which pertains to “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged and confidential.”