RESPONDENT: Department of the Navy
LOCATION: Indian Island, Port Hadlock, Washington
DOCKET NO.: 09-1163
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 562 US 562 (2011)
GRANTED: Jun 28, 2010
ARGUED: Dec 01, 2010
DECIDED: Mar 07, 2011
Anthony A. Yang - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
David S. Mann - for the petitioner
Facts of the case
Glen Milner, a member of an organization dedicated to raising community awareness about the dangers of Navy training exercises near Puget Sound, sued the Department of the Navy in a Washington federal district court under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") to obtain the release of Navy documents relating to the effects of explosions at several locations. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Navy.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that documents relating to the effects of explosions constituted internal personnel rules and regulations of the agency which are subject to exemption from disclosure by the FOIA. The court reasoned that such documents are "predominantly" for internal agency use that present a risk, that if disclosed, would circumvent agency regulation.
Did the Ninth Circuit err by exempting documents relating to the effects of explosions from disclosure under the FOIA because they are "predominantly" for internal use and present a risk of circumventing agency regulation?
Media for Milner v. Department of the NavyAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 01, 2010 in Milner v. Department of the Navy
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 07, 2011 in Milner v. Department of the Navy
The Freedom of Information Act, better known as FOIA generally requires the Federal Government to make its records available to the public on request.
But FOIA contains nine exemptions, nine categories of material that the Government does not have to disclose.
In this case, concerns the meaning of one of those exemptions, Exemption 2.
According to that exemption, the Government need not disclose records that relates solely and I'm quoting now, "that relate to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency".
Now this case started when the Navy received a FOIA request for something called Explosive Safety Quantity Distance Information for a naval base in Puget Sound, Washington.
That's a $10 term but what it means is this, the Navy stores explosive at the space and in order to make sure that the facility is as safe as possible, Navy personnel use various data and maps to show the effect of an explosive device going off.
That information enables them to store the explosives so that even if one does go off, it won't set off a chain reaction.
And the FOIA request here was for those explosive maps and data.
The Navy denied the request based on Exemption 2.
The Ninth Circuit upheld the Navy's action, but we reversed.
The Navy maybe able to withhold these explosives maps under some other exemption, but it cannot do so by relying on Exemption 2.
The text of Exemption 2 compels these results, records relating the personnel rules and practices, and that's the key phrase, are records that concerned employee relations and human resources matters.
This is just a matter of ordinary language, the meaning of the word "personnel" as used in the Exemption to modify rules and practices.
All of us can think of similar uses of the term personnel.
A personnel department deals with employee relations and problems.
A personnel agency helps place people in jobs.
And the personnel file which is a term FOIA also uses in another exemption is the file containing information about an employee's work history.
In all of these cases, the word "personnel" is a synonym for HR or Human Resources.
Congress meant the same thing here.
Personnel rules and practices are rules and practices relating to the conditions of employment in federal agencies, hiring and firing, work rules and discipline, compensation and benefits.
So for example, if an agency record has to do with employee pay or parking or vacations, it falls within the exemption.
But almost needless to say a record about the effects of detonating an explosive device does not.
And so the Navy cannot withhold these records under Exemption 2.
The Ninth Circuit held otherwise in reliance on an old DC Circuit decision that adopted a much broader interpretation of Exemption 2.
Under that decision, the Government could also withhold any internal materials whose release would risk circumvention of law.
Today, we reject that interpretation as inconsistent with Exemption 2's text and its purpose.
We recognized that the Government may have good reasons to protect these explosives maps and other similar materials and we do not say today that the Navy must release these records.
Other FOIA exemptions may shield them.
The Navy argued below that Exemption 7 which protects certain law enforcement records applies to the explosive data and that argument remains open to the Government on remand.
In addition, Exemption 1 prevents access to classified documents.