April 1, 2004
FRIVOLOUS REQUESTS FOR RECORDS UNDER THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT
By: Sandra Norman-Eady, Chief Attorney
You asked for the options available to a municipal agency that is being asked to respond to frivolous requests for copies of records. The Office of Legislative research is not authorized to give legal opinions and this report should not be viewed as one.
The law does not give a public agency the authority to deny or penalize a requestor if it considers a request for information to be frivolous. However, a municipal agency can take certain lawful actions that might both reduce the amount of time it spends responding to these requests and provide the requestor with quick and reasonable information.
First, agency employees could, without trying to delay access, take the time to find out what the requestor is really interested in before responding to a request. This approach may save time, by forcing the requestor to reconsider, and perhaps narrow, his request. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does not require agencies to guess about the records a requestor is trying to access. It requires requestors to make their requests specific enough for an agency to respond accurately.
Second, an agency could respond to a request without unreasonable delay not necessarily right away. Although the FOIA requires public agencies to allow for the prompt inspection of public records, it does not define “promptly.” Mitchell Pearlman, executive director and legal counsel to the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC), has stated that “promptly” means without unreasonable delay. According to Pearlman, agency employees are not expected to drop everything they are doing in order to respond to a FOIA request. These employees are also not required to give such requests top priority. However, Pearlman cautions that there should be little delay in publicly disclosing documents that are otherwise readily available. The law gives public agencies up to four days to send a denial for most written requests for public records (they have up to 10 days to deny requests for employees' personnel or medical files or public employment contracts after checking with the subject of the record) (CGS §§ 1-206 and 1-214).
Third, the agency could charge the maximum allowable fee for copies: 50 cents per page or, for transcribed or computer-stored records, the agency's production costs (CGS § 1-212).
If none of this helps to stop the harassment, the agency could deny the requestor access to information and force him to file a complaint with the FOIC. The commission can fine a person between $20 and $1,000 if it believes he filed a groundless and frivolous complaint to harass the agency (CGS § 1-206). Finally, a public agency can ask a court for an injuction to prohibit the requestor from bringing any further appeals to the commission if it finds that doing so would create an injustice or constitute an abuse of the commission's administrative process. If the court orders the injunction and the requestor files another appeal violating it, the agency can seek further injunctive relief as well as damages and costs (CGS § 1-241).