FCC v. AT&T Inc.

PETITIONER:Federal Communications Commission
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 09-1279
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 562 US 397 (2011)
GRANTED: Sep 28, 2010
ARGUED: Jan 19, 2011
DECIDED: Mar 01, 2011

Anthony A. Yang – for the petitioners
Geoffrey M. Klineberg – for the respondents

Facts of the case

CompTel, a trade association that represents some of AT&T’s competitors, filed a FOIA request with the Federal Communications Commision in 2005, seeking documents related to an FCC probe into whether AT&T had overcharged the agency for work on a technology education project. AT&T fought the request, contending the production of the documents violated Exemption 7(c) of FOIA, which exempts document disclosures in law enforcement records that would constitute an invasion of “personal privacy.”

The FCC rejected AT&T’s argument, but in September 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that the phrase “personal privacy” applied to corporations because other sections of FOIA had defined “person” as a corporation.


May corporations assert personal privacy interests to prevent the government from releasing documents about them?

Media for FCC v. AT&T Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 19, 2011 in FCC v. AT&T Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 01, 2011 in FCC v. AT&T Inc.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have our opinion this morning in Case 09-1279 FCC versus AT&T.

This case started when the Federal Communications Commission conducted an investigation of AT&T.

In the course of that investigation, AT&T turned over many internal documents to the FCC.

CompTel, a trade association representing some of AT&T’s competitors, filed a request asking that the FCC give an access to those documents.

CompTel filed its request under the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA.

And under that Act, federal government agencies are required to make documents publicly available upon request unless the documents are covered by an exemption.

There are nine such exemptions.One of which Exemption 7 is the one that issue in this case.

Exemption 7 applies to information that is complied for law enforcement purposes.

Exemption 7 sees specifically exempts from disclosure any such information if disclosing it “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”.

AT&T sought to block the disclosure of the documents it had turned over to the FCC arguing that Exemption 7(C) should protect its personal privacy.

The question presented in this case is whether corporations as opposed to just individuals can have personal privacy under Exemption 7(C).

Now, AT&T’s primary argument is that the word “personal” is the adjective form of the word “person” and “person” is defined in the FOIA.

For the purposes of the statute, Congress defined the word “person” to include corporations and various other entities because the statutes says that the word “person” extends to corporations, AT&T argues, so should the word “personal” when used in the same statute.

We disagree.

Adjectives often reflect the meaning of related nouns.

A person who is charitable is one who is generous and benevolent, just as a charity is an institution that gives relief to needy persons and causes.

But sometimes adjectives and nouns have disparate meanings.

For example, the adjective “corny” does not have any obvious connection to the noun “corn”.

Now, AT&T is right that “person” in the statute is defined to include corporations, but “personal” is not because “personal” is an undefined term in the statute, we look to its ordinary meaning and context.

The ordinary meaning of “personal” does not include corporations.

We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondents, personal influence, personal tragedy as referring to corporations or other artificial entities.

It’s not that corporations do not have correspondent’s influence or tragedies of their own, but then we do not use the word “personal” to describe it.

In fact, we often use the word “personal” to mean just the opposite of business-related.

We speak for example of personal expenses as opposed to business expenses.

In addition, don’t forget that we are trying to figure out not just the reach of the term “personal” but of the phrase “personal privacy”.

An adjective can take on a different meaning depending on the noun that it modifies.

A golden cup is one made out of or colored like the metal, a golden boy is one who is talented, successful, charming and so on.

In the present context, it seems clear to us that “personal privacy” does not include corporations.

This Court has often referred to the term “personal privacy” as it is used in FOIA as protecting the privacy of individuals.

But we have no examples where a court has used that term to describe the privacy of a corporation.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

AT&T argues that the Court has, in fact, recognized privacy interests of corporations in a variety of context such as under the Fourth Amendment and Double Jeopardy Clause.

But the issue before us is a much narrower one.

This case is only about FOIA Exemption 7(C) nothing more.

The case as AT&T cites from the other areas are too far field from the particular question that issue here to be of much help.

We hold that personal privacy in FOIA Exemption 7(C) does not include the privacy of corporations.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit is therefore reversed.

All members of the Court join the opinion to that effect except Justice Kagan who did not participate in the consideration or decision of the case.