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The Freedom of Information Act
Mechanics of Operation
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Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests

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This guide is designed to assist you in requesting records from the United States Railroad Retirement Board (RRB). The RRB is a federal agency charged with the administration of the Railroad Retirement Act and the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act. In general, the Railroad Retirement Act replaces the Social Security Act for employment in the railroad industry. Similarly, the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act replaces state unemployment acts for work in the railroad industry. The RRB is headquartered at 844 North Rush Street in Chicago, Illinois 60611-1275. All written requests for records should be directed to the Chief FOIA Officer (General Counsel) at this address unless otherwise noted in this guide.

Information available from the RRB under the FOIA includes the agency's:

Legal opinions since 1993, procedure manuals, and final decisions of the three-member board are available on this web site without a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

I. The Freedom of Information Act

A. Overview
Because the RRB administers a comprehensive program of railroad retirement, unemployment, and sickness benefits for railroad workers, it also maintains information about individuals which may not be disclosed in response to a FOIA request. The Railroad Retirement Act, the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act, and the Privacy Act restrict the disclosure of information about individuals. If you request information about an individual, you must, as a general rule, provide the RRB a written authorization signed by the individual who is the subject of that record.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), establishes a presumption that all records of governmental agencies are accessible to the public unless they are specifically exempted from disclosure by FOIA or another statute.

FOIA imposes a tripartite scheme of disclosure:

  1. Federal Register Publication Requirements
    Section 552(a)(1) requires agencies to publish in the Federal Register descriptions of agency organization; procedures for the public to obtain information; statements of agency function; rules of procedure; descriptions of agency forms; substantive rules of general applicability and statements of general policy; and any changes in material required to be published. Where a matter is required to be published in the Federal Register and is not so published, no person may in any manner be required to resort to, or be adversely affected by, the matter except to the extent that the person had actual and timely notice of the matter.,

  2. Public Availability Requirements
    Section 552(a)(2) requires that agencies make available for public inspection or copying (or for sale) certain basic agency records that, while not subject to the publication requirement of § 552(a)(1), are to be made available in agency reading rooms and (for records created on or after November 1, 1996) in “electronic” reading rooms accessible by computer. Four categories of records are subject to this disclosure requirement: (a) final opinions in agency adjudications; (b) statements of policy and interpretations not published in the Federal Register; (c) administrative and staff manuals that affect the public; and (d) records processed and disclosed under a FOIA request that “the agency determines have become or are likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records.” Material required to be made publicly available may be used by the agency only if indexed or made available or published, or if the party affected otherwise has timely notice of the materials.

    The RRB has established a reading room at its headquarters office. The reading room offers access to copies of the agency's procedure manuals, final decision of the three-member Board which heads the agency (“the Board”), ruling of the Board and legal opinions. Some of these documents may also be available at various district and regional offices of the RRB.

    General information about the RRB is available in the Agency Overview.

    You can also find information about RRB records under the Government Printing Office's ( GPO) Government Information Locator System (GILS). The GILS site contains an inventory of the RRB's automated information systems, its Privacy Act system of records, and how information is dispersed to other government agencies.

  3. Records Disclosed on Request
    All other records unless exempt from required disclosure under § 552(b) or excluded from FOIA coverage under § 552(c) must be disclosed upon request. See APA § 522(a )( 2). Disclosure is to be effected pursuant to published agency rules. The RRB has issued regulations in 20 CFR 200.4 regarding its compliance with the FOIA. In addition, the RRB issues an annual report under the FOIA. Copies of the regulations and/or annual report may be obtained by writing to the General Counsel. The annual report is available on the RRB's website.

B. Mechanics of Operation
FOIA provides that “any person,” including corporations, associations, and foreign persons, entities and governments, may request agency records. Agency compliance is subject to the requester's willingness to pay search, copying, and for commercial requesters, review fees unless waived by the agency. FOIA does not impose any “need to know” requirement on requesters, and an agency must disclose any requested information that is not exempted.

  1. Definition of Agency
    FOIA applies to any “agency,” which is defined to include any executive department, military department, Government corporation, Government-controlled corporation, or other establishment in the executive branch of the Government (including the Executive Office of the President), including any independent regulatory agency. The RRB is an independent federal agency in the executive branch of the federal government charged with the administration of the Railroad Retirement and Railroad Unemployment Insurance Acts.

  2. Application to Agency Records
    FOIA applies only to “agency records.” Agency records are documents that (1) are either created or obtained by an agency, and (2) are in that agency's physical possession and under its control at the time of the FOIA request.

    Records held outside the government but subject to an agency right of access are not agency records. FOIA does not compel government agencies to create records. In very rare circumstances courts may require agencies to attempt to recreate destroyed records or to provide an explanation for records containing codes or notations that mask the meaning of the records. “Records” include electronic and other media.
  3. Specificity and Form of Request
    Requesters must “reasonably describe” records sought so as to “enable a professional employee of the agency who is familiar with the subject area of the request to locate the records with a reasonable amount of effort.” Requesters must also comply with all published rules of the agency.

    A FOIA request to the RRB must be made in writing and cannot be made electronically through the Internet. It is easy to make a written FOIA request by mail. No form is needed. Mark both the envelope and its contents: “Freedom of Information Request” or “Information Request.” Address your request to:

    Chief FOIA Officer (General Counsel)
    Railroad Retirement Board
    844 North Rush Street
    Chicago, Illinois 60611-1275

    If you want to request a record which we do not publish or which we do not make available in one of our offices, give us a detailed description of the record(s) you want. You should give us as many details as you can, such as names, dates, subject matter and location. A vague description could delay our answer or prevent us from finding the records you want. We will ask you to revise your request if we need information to find the record(s). You should include a daytime telephone number where you can be reached in case we have questions about your request.

    • FOIA Requester Service Center

      The RRB has designated its Office of General Counsel as its FOIA Requester Service Center for the purpose of facilitating better agency communications with FOIA requesters.  The telephone number is (312) 751-4948.

    • FOIA Public Liaison

      The RRB has designated its Assistant General Counsel, Marguerite P. Dadabo, as its FOIA Public Liaison who will serve as the supervisory official to whom a FOIA requester can raise concerns about the service a FOIA requester has received from the center following an initial response from the center staff.  Ms. Dadabo may be contacted at (312) 751-4936.

    Separate and distinct from the agency is the RRB's Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG is responsible for promoting economy, efficiency and effectiveness, and for identifying and preventing fraud, waste and abuse in agency programs. The OIG conducts audits, investigations and management reviews of agency operations. You may submit a FOIA request for records in the OIG by regular mail or fax mail at the following:

    Office of Inspector General
    Freedom of Information Officer
    844 North Rush Street , Room 450
    Chicago, IL 60611-1275

    A request to the OIG must meet the following criteria before it can be processed:

    (1) It must be in writing and signed by the person making the request. No telephone requests will be accepted.

    (2) It must state that the request is being made under the FOIA. If the exact records are unknown, a reasonable description should be given. If a fee waiver is requested, the category of the requester must be Stated (i.e., commercial, media, educational, etc.).

    If you have questions regarding a FOIA request to the OIG, please call the OIG FOIA Coordinator at (312) 751-4350.

  4. Fees and Fee Waivers
  5. Subject to some limitations, agencies may charge fees, according to published fee schedules, for searching for, reviewing, and copying the requested agency records. If a noncommercial requester makes the request, fees may only be charged for search time and copying. If the request is made by an educational or noncommercial scientific institution or a representative of the news media, fees may normally only be charged for search time. Additionally, noncommercial requesters may not be charged for the first 100 pages of document copying or for the first two hours of search time. Agencies reduce or waive fees where the disclosure of information is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding or the government activities and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.

    The RRB's fee schedule for FOIA requests is contained within 20 CFR § 200.4.
  6. Time for Administrative Determinations; Administrative Expedition
    An agency is ordinarily required to make its initial determination within 20 working days of a receipt of a request for information, and to make a determination on any appeal within 20 working days of receipt of the appeal. In “unusual circumstances,” an agency can extend these deadlines by an additional 10 working days. A requester can obtain expedited processing of a request upon a showing of “compelling need” or in other cases determined by the agency to be appropriate. An agency must act on a request for expedition within 10 working days of its receipt. Where an agency fails to comply with the statutory deadlines, the requester may treat the delay as a denial and either appeal administratively or litigate in federal courts.
  7. Search Required
    Agencies must make reasonable efforts to conduct a search for requested records. The agency cannot limit its search to only certain places if additional sources are likely to turn up the information requested. If a requester challenges the adequacy or thoroughness of an agency's search for records, the agency bears the burden of proving the reasonableness of its efforts and must provide details of the procedures used in its search.
  8. Segregation Requirement
    Where a requested record contains exempt and nonexempt information, an agency must disclose nonexempt, reasonably segregable portions of the record. Determinations of whether record portions are reasonably segregable are based on the intelligibility of the nonexempt material and the burden of editing or segregating it.
  9. Explanation Required
    Where an agency denies a request in whole or in part, the agency must provide the requester with an indication of which information will not be released, a statement of the reasons for withholding the records, a notice of the requester's right to appeal to the head of the agency, and a statement of the names and titles or positions of each person responsible for the denial.
  10. Administrative Appeal
    A requester may appeal to the head of the agency a denial of a request, an inadequate agency search for records, an agency failure to respond to a request within the statutory time limits, the imposition of excessive fees, or the agency's denial of a request for waiver or reduction of fees. A requester may obtain expedited review upon a showing of “exceptional need or urgency.”

    The requester may appeal any of the matters mentioned in the previous paragraph to the three-member Railroad Retirement Board which heads the Agency by sending a written appeal to the Secretary to the Board, 844 North Rush Street , Chicago , Illinois 60611-1275.

    A copy of the denial should accompany the appeal. The Board will respond to the appeal within 20 business days.

  11. Judicial review
    A denial by the Board may be appealed to the United States District Court.

    A requester may seek judicial review of the agency actions mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

C. Exemptions
FOIA requires that all government records must be published or made available to the public unless they fall into one of the nine enumerated exemptions in § 552(b). The exemptions are not mandatory bars to disclosure, and therefore an agency – unless otherwise prohibited by a more specific statute – may exercise its discretion to disclose exempted information.

  1. Exemption 1 covers documents that are “specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive Order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy and are in fact properly classified pursuant to such Executive Order.”

  2. Exemption 2 protects from disclosure information “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.”

  3. Exemption 3 protects information specifically exempted from disclosure by statute, provided that such statute (a) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue or (b) established particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld. Section 12(d) and 12(n) of the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (45 U.S.C. §§ 362(d) and (n) are incorporated into the Railroad Retirement Act. These provisions prohibit disclosure of personally identifiable information unless one of the exemptions contained in those sections are met. These statutes are Exemption 3 statutes.

  4. Exemption 4 applies to “trade secrets” and to “commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.”

  5. Exemption 5 shields from mandatory disclosure “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.”

  6. Exemption 6 covers “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

  7. Exemption 7 protects records or information complied for law enforcement purposes.

  8. Exemption 8 applies to matters that are “contained in or related to examination, operating, or condition reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of an agency responsible for the regulations or supervision of financial institutions.”

  9. Exemption 9 applies to “geological and geophysical information and date, including maps, concerning wells.”

II. Judicial Review

  1. Jurisdiction

  2. United States district courts have jurisdiction to enjoin an agency from withholding agency records and to order production of any records improperly withheld. District courts also have jurisdiction to determine whether an agency has charged excessive fees for a FOIA request and whether the agency has improperly denied a fee waiver request. Courts may also have jurisdiction to review agency failure to publish information required by § 552(a )( 1) and refusal to make information available for inspection and copying under § 552(a)(2).
  3. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

  4. FOIA requesters must exhaust administrative remedies before filing FOIA suits.

    A requester “shall be deemed to have exhausted his administrative remedies ... if the agency fails to comply with the applicable time limit provisions.” If the agency responds to an initial request after the 20 working days permitted for a response to the request, but prior to the filing of a lawsuit, the requester is then obligated to pursue an administrative appeal prior to initiating litigation. Even if an agency fails to meet the time limits and the requester brings suit, courts may stay the litigation, retain jurisdiction and allow the agency additional time to process the request if the agency can show that “exceptional circumstances exist and the agency is exercising due diligence in responding to the request.” Exceptional circumstances exist only where the agency “is deluged with a volume of requests for information vastly in excess of that anticipated by Congress” and “the existing resources are inadequate to deal with the volume of such requests within the time limits” of the Act.
  5. Statute of Limitations

  6. The general federal statute of limitations of six years applies to FOIA suits and begins to run once the requester has, or is deemed to have, exhausted his administrative remedies.
  7. Venue

  8. Proper venue for a FOIA action is in the federal district court in which the plaintiff resides, or has his principal place of business, or in which the agency records are situated, or in the District of Columbia .
  9. Burden of Proof

  10. The agency always has the burden of proving (1) that the records in question or any parts withheld are exempt from disclosure and (2) that each document requested either has been produced, is unidentifiable, or is wholly exempt from disclosure.
  11. De Novo Review
    Agency decisions to withhold information are reviewed de novo by the courts.

Privacy Policy Policies & Links Freedom of Information Act No FEAR Act Data Frequently Asked Questions About Us

Link to RECOVERY.gov
Link to USA.gov: The U.S. government's official web portal. U.S. Railroad Retirement Board
844 North Rush Street
Chicago IL, 60611-1275
Toll Free: (877) 772-5772
TTY: (312) 751-4701
Directory: (312) 751-4300
Locate an RRB office near you
RRB Home Page
Date posted: 01/04/2010
Date updated: 01/04/2010