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A Better Way for BPA v. United States Department of Energy Bonneville Power Administration

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

May 25, 2018

A Better Way For BPA, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
United States Department of Energy Bonneville Power Administration, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued and Seattle, Washington Submitted April 13, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington Ronald B. Leighton, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 3:15-cv-05896-RBL

          Jacob Brooks (argued) and David A. Bricklin, Bricklin & Newman LLP, Seattle, Washington, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Brian Kipnis (argued), Assistant United States Attorney; Annette L. Hayes, United States Attorney; United States Attorney's Office, Seattle, Washington; for Defendant-Appellee.

          Before: Michael Daly Hawkins and M. Margaret McKeown, Circuit Judges, and James A. Teilborg, [*] District Judge.

          OPINION

          McKEOWN, Circuit Judge:

         SUMMARY[**]

         Freedom of Information Act

         The panel reversed the district court's dismissal of a suit brought under the Freedom of Information Act by an environmental nonprofit organization alleging that the Department of Energy Bonneville Power Administration failed to turn over documents requested by one of its members, on behalf of the organization.

         The district court dismissed the suit for lack of standing after finding that the electronically submitted Freedom of Information Act request form failed to adequately identify the organization, A Better Way for BPA, as the requester. In reversing the district court, the panel held that common sense must prevail in determining who is a requester under the Freedom of Information Act, and that in this case the online form clearly identified the organization as the requester. The organization therefore had standing to sue. The panel determined that viewing the form as a whole, it was clear that the document request was made on behalf of the organization, that the request was not for commercial purposes, that there was an obvious public interest, and that the requester had members. The panel further held that any confusion in the electronic form was of the Department's own making and could easily be fixed. Moreover, to the extent ambiguity existed, the follow-up correspondence between the organization and the Department affirmed that the organization was the requestor.

         COUNSEL

         Submitting a Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") request electronically is easy-fill out an online form, click submit, and wait for the documents. Cheryl Brantley did precisely that on behalf of A Better Way for BPA ("A Better Way"), an environmental nonprofit group. Almost a year later, the documents had not been turned over, so A Better Way sued the Department of Energy Bonneville Power Administration ("BPA"). The government challenged the group's standing and the district court dismissed the suit, saying that the submitted form did not adequately identify the organization as the requester. We disagree. FOIA forms should not be a "gotcha" proposition requiring a lexicographer to discern who made the request. But here, the submitted form's unambiguous reference to A Better Way, confirming correspondence, and common sense make clear that A Better Way was the requester and consequently has standing to sue.

         Background

         What follows is a detailed chronology of the events related to the FOIA request. We provide these specifics because both the submitted form and the correspondence between the requester and agency are important to our conclusion that A Better Way made the request and thus has standing to bring this suit.

         Cheryl Brantley, a member of A Better Way, submitted a FOIA request on January 31, 2015. Using the electronic form on BPA's ...


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