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CDC, FEMA must produce COVID-19 documents, BuzzFeed FOIA suit says

Nick Wagner  

Nick Wagner  

(March 19, 2020) - BuzzFeed Inc. has asked a federal judge to compel the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to produce documents the digital media outlet requested under the Freedom of Information Act on their work involving COVID-19.

Leopold et al. v. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention et al., No. 20-cv-722, complaint filed, 2020 WL 1226381 (D.D.C. Mar. 13, 2020).
The agencies in late February agreed to expedite processing for the requests but still have not handed over any materials, BuzzFeed and reporter Jason Leopold say in a lawsuit filed March 13 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Requests for documents

The plaintiffs say they filed requests with the CDC under FOIA, 5 U.S.C.A. § 552, on Feb. 12 for all:

  • Emails to or from CDC Director Robert Redfield mentioning or referring to the coronavirus.
  • Internal CDC coronavirus studies.
  • Guidance on policy and law the CDC has received or distributed to its staff related to the coronavirus.
  • Internal memos or letters that reference the coronavirus.
  • Draft and final versions of talking points on the coronavirus.

The agency on Feb. 18 acknowledged receipt of the requests but said they were “overly broad” and asked for a timeframe, according to the complaint.
Two days later the CDC withdrew its prior letter and said it would search for the documents, the suit says.
The plaintiffs and the CDC on Feb. 21 agreed to limit the scope to only documents and related materials from Dec. 19 to Jan. 31 and to certain high-level personnel, the complaint says.
The CDC on Feb. 25 agreed to expedited processing but asked for an extension, according to the suit.
Th next day, the plaintiffs narrowed the scope even further to just documents from Feb. 1 onward, but the CDC still has not fulfilled the requests, the complaint says.
According to the suit, the plaintiffs on Feb. 12 asked FEMA for its coronavirus outbreak contingency plans and any related records or written communications.
FEMA on Feb. 27 acknowledged the requests and said it would expedite its production process, the complaint says. The plaintiffs say they agreed March 5 to narrow the scope and timeframe of the requests to:

  • All coronavirus-related contingency plans for the members of public.
  • Emails, memos, discussions, letters and correspondence mentioning or referring to the contingency plans from FEMA head Pete T. Gaynor and 12 other agency officials from Jan. 7 to Feb. 14.

The agency has not produced any responsive documents, according to the suit.

The plaintiffs seek court orders declaring the agencies violated FOIA and requiring them to produce the requested documents.

To keep up-dated on the latest news and information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic impact, and the government’s response, at Thomson Reuters’ COVID-19 Resource Center, and you can follow or the Reuters App.

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