Consumer Product Safety Commission v. GTE Sylvania, Inc.

PETITIONER: Consumer Product Safety Commission
RESPONDENT: GTE Sylvania, Inc.
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division

DOCKET NO.: 79-521
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 447 US 102 (1980)
ARGUED: Apr 14, 1980
DECIDED: Jun 09, 1980

Bernard G. Segal - for respondents
Peter Buscemi - for petitioners, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court

Facts of the case


Media for Consumer Product Safety Commission v. GTE Sylvania, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 14, 1980 in Consumer Product Safety Commission v. GTE Sylvania, Inc.

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments first this morning in Consumer Product Safety Commission and others against GTE Sylvania.

Mr. Buscemi, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Peter Buscemi:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This case concerns the relationship between the Freedom of Information Act and Section 6 (b) (1) of the Consumer Product Safety Act.

The case is here because two Federal Courts of Appeals have disagreed over the way in which the two statutes should be applied.

The Second Circuit in Pierce & Stevens Chemical Corporation against the Consumer Product Safety Commission adopted the Commissions view that Section 6 (b) (1) does not apply when the Commission responds to an FOIA request.

Four months later in the present case, the Third Circuit reached the contrary result.

The Commission petitioned for certiorari to resolve the conflict.

And the facts here are straight forward.

In March of 1974, the Commission published a notice in the Federal Register announcing the time and place of a public hearing to discuss television receivers' safety with emphasis on shock and fire hazards.

The notice asked manufacturers to submit a variety of information concerning television safety including all TV related accident reports collected since 1969.

When the manufacturers' response to this informal request proved unsatisfactory, the Commission sought to obtain the same materials through the special order and subpoena procedures provided in Section 27 (b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act.

Eventually, television manufacturers submitted a large volume of information to the Commission, the vast majority of which consisted of TV accident data.

The Commission received more than 7600 TV related accident reports concerning accidents occurring between 1969 and 1974.

And soon after the manufacturers began to submit their requested materials, Consumers Union of the United States and Public Citizen's Health Research Group filed FOIA request to inspect and copy the information submitted including the TV accident reports.

In response to those requests, the Commission made available all of the materials submitted by the manufacturers as to which no claim of confidentiality had been made.

The Commission then notified the manufacturers of the outstanding FOIA requests and asked them to substantiate the earlier claims of confidentiality that they had made at the time they submitted the information.

The manufacturers responded by asserting that the accident reports and some other materials were exempt from mandatory disclosure under the FOIA, under Exemption 4, the so-called “trade secret exemption” and Exemption 7, the exemption for investigatory files compiled for law enforcement purposes.

They also asserted that some of the material including some of the material within the accident reports could not be released because to release it would be to violate the criminal provisions of the Trade Secrets Act, 18 U.S.C. 1905.

The Commission then reviewed the accident reports and the manufacturers' submissions on confidentiality and determined that the bulk of the material was not exempt from mandatory disclosure under the FOIA.

The Commission notified the manufacturers of its determination and told them they would withhold three categories of information, accident data that identified the name and address of an accident victim or included other personal information, the release of which might result in an invasion of privacy, accident data in the form of legal material such as legal memoranda and correspondents with an attorney privilege because of the attorney-client relationship or the attorney work product doctrine.

And finally, technical data that the submitting company had kept secret and the release of which might have caused substantial harm to the company.

The Commission also informed the manufacturers that because of the apparent variations in the way the manufacturers had maintained their accident records over the years between 1969 and 1974 that the release of those records under the FOIA would be accompanied by a statement to the effect that because of the variations, some of the data could be misleading.

Now, there's never been any dispute in this litigation about anything but the accident reports, because in May 1975, the requesters agreed to limit their request to those reports, edited to eliminate the personal information about the accident victims and the legal materials.

After the Commission announced this decision, respondents, who are 12 of the affected to television manufacturers, filed separate lawsuits in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware, and three other District Courts.

All 12 suits were eventually consolidated in the District of Delaware.

In addition to their -- repeating their contentions regarding the FOIA exemptions in the Trade Secrets Act, respondents, for the first time, alleged that the Commission's proposed release of the accident reports would violate Section 6 (b) (1) of the Consumer Product Safety Act.

The District Court accepted this argument and permanently enjoined the Commission from releasing the materials without complying with the procedural requirements of Section 6 (b) (1).

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting the analysis of the Second Circuit in Pierce & Stevens Chemical Corporation.

Now, because both Courts have -- have decided this case in reliance of Section 6 (b) (1), neither has ever addressed the allegations by respondents that the accident reports are exempt from mandatory disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.