March 01, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T

On March 1, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T, Inc., No. 09-1279, holding that corporations do not have "personal privacy" that is protected by exemption 7(C) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 

As part of a Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau investigation into possible overcharging, AT&T submitted a number of documents to the FCC, including responses to interrogatories, invoices, emails with pricing and billing information, names and job descriptions of employees involved, and AT&T's assessment of whether those employees had violated the company's code of conduct.  After AT&T resolved the matter through a consent decree, CompTel (a trade association representing some of AT&T's competitors) submitted an FOIA request seeking all of the materials assembled through the investigation.  AT&T objected to the request on multiple grounds.

The Bureau upheld AT&T's objections to the disclosure of some materials on grounds that the information was proprietary (5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4)) or that disclosure would invade the "personal privacy" of various individuals identified in documents under exemption 7(C) of the FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(C).  The Bureau refused to apply the "personal privacy" exemption to AT&T itself, however, reasoning that businesses do not possess the "personal privacy" interests required by the exemption.  On review, the FCC agreed with the Bureau.  The United States Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit disagreed, concluding that because the FOIA defines "person" to include corporations, the adjective "personal" must likewise include corporations and stating that "[i]t would be very odd indeed for an adjectival form of a defined term not to refer back to that defined term."

The Supreme Court reversed.  The Court concluded that "[a]djectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always."  The Court noted several factors that indicated that the word "personal" in exemption 7(C) was not intended to embrace corporations, including:

  • the ordinary meaning of the word "personal,"
  • the coupling of the word "personal" with the word "privacy," a traditionally individual concept,
  • the use of the same term "personal privacy" in FOIA's exemption 6 in connection with individuals' personnel files and medical records,
  • the lack of precedent for AT&T's proposed definition in analogous statutes or case law, and
  • the government's longstanding interpretation of exemption 7(C) to apply only to individuals.

For these reasons, the Court concluded, "[t]he protection in FOIA against disclosure of law enforcement information on the ground that it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy does not extend to corporations."  The Court then concluded:  "We trust that AT&T will not take it personally."

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.  Justice Kagan took no part in the decision of the case.

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