The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on March 1, 2011, that corporations do not have the same privacy rights as individuals when it comes to blocking requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Under FOIA, federal agencies must make records and documents publicly available upon request, subject to certain statutory exemptions. Among the materials falling under these exemptions are law enforcement records that if disclosed "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Here, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had documents that AT&T had provided as a result of a 2004 FCC investigation into potential overbilling of the government by AT&T. A trade association representing AT&T's competitors filed a FOIA request for those documents and AT&T sued to prevent the FCC from disclosing the documents. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit sided with AT&T, finding that Congress has defined the term "person" to include corporations, on appeal the Supreme Court decided otherwise, holding that corporations do not have "personal privacy" for purposes of the FOIA exemption and that the Third Circuit had erred in extending those privacy rights to corporations.
In light of the decision, corporations, particularly those responding to government investigations, should be aware that competitors and potential plaintiffs can gain access to sensitive corporate information through FOIA and that they may not rely on the "personal privacy" exemption to prevent disclosure. Note that other exemptions, such as those protecting trade secrets and commercial or financial information, were not challenged in the case. Thus, corporations may still rely on other FOIA exemptions on a case-by-case basis and as applicable given the surrounding facts and circumstances.
FCC v. AT&T Inc., No. 09-1279, March 1, 2011