The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals published its decision in Lahr v. NTSB this week. The case concerns privacy exemptions to FOIA requests, and arose over a dispute about the cause of the Trans World Airlines Flight 800 (“TWA Flight 800”) mid-air explosion off the coast of Long Island that killed all 230 people on board on July 17, 1996. The court opinion provides the relevant background:
The cause of this dramatic and tragic event remains, for some, in dispute, and that dispute underlies this lawsuit brought under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552.
The government, after an extensive investigation, concluded that the accident was caused by an explosion in one of the aircraft’s fuel tanks, initiated by an electrical short circuit. Ray Lahr is, to put it mildly, not convinced. He maintains that the government has engaged in a massive cover-up of the real cause, which he suspects is most likely a strike by a missile launched offshore by the U.S. Navy. In an attempt to prove
his theory, Lahr initiated more than two hundred FOIA requests for documents and data to federal agencies involved in the investigation. When the agencies gave him only some of the information he asked for, Lahr filed this lawsuit. On summary judgment, the district court ordered the government to release some documents in compliance with his requests but authorized it to withhold others, as exempt from disclosure
pursuant to several of FOIA’s enumerated exemptions.
Lahr, a former Navy and commercial pilot and a member of the Air Line Pilots Association, appealed several of the district court’s rulings authorizing nondisclosure of names and documents. The government appealed only one aspect of the district court’s ruling:
The agencies released eleven documents with the names of eyewitnesses and FBI agents redacted, citing Exemptions 6 and 7(C) of FOIA.6 On summary judgment, the district court ordered the agencies to release these names, holding that the public interest in disclosure outweighed the privacy interests of the witnesses and agents. The agencies appeal from this decision.
The opinion’s discussion of FOIA and the issue of “cognizable privacy interests” makes for an interesting read. The court reversed the lower court ruling that had ordered disclosure and held that the FBI agents and eyewitnesses had a significant privacy interest that would meet the exemptions under FOIA.
(Photo credit: The fuselage of TWA Flight 800 is shown on Tuesday, May 4, 2004 in Ashburn, Va. Evan Vucci/AP)