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Coleman v. Drug Enforcement Administration, No. 11-1999

May 2, 2013

Reversing the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, the Fourth Circuit held that administrative remedies had been constructively exhausted under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) did not respond to Coleman’s FOIA request for over four months.

Coleman, a researcher and author, sent a FOIA request to the DEA seeking documents about carisoprodol on February 29, 2008.  Coleman offered to reimburse the government up to $1,000 for searching and reproducing the requested documents.  The DEA received this request on March 4, 2008.  Without communicating with Coleman since his request, on July 14, 2009, the DEA denied the FOIA request because the $1,000 promise was insufficient to cover the costs, and the DEA required $1,640 to begin the search.  On July 31, 2009, Coleman appealed the fee assessment to the Office of Information Policy (OIP), and he raised, for the first time, an argument that he was not a commercial requester and requested that his fees be waived because of the excessive delay.  The OIP received the appeal on August 18, 2009.  On March 29, 2010, the OIP ruled for Coleman, stating that the DEA’s action was not consistent with its own regulations, and the OIP sent its opinion to the DEA.  To ensure that the DEA met his request, Coleman resubmitted his FOIA request on April 22, 2010.  In this resubmitted FOIA request, Coleman reiterated that he was not a commercial requester.  After four more months of waiting, Coleman filed this suit against the DEA.  A day before answering the complaint, the DEA denied his FOIA request.

The District Court granted summary judgment to the DEA because Coleman had not exhausted his administrative remedies and because he did not pay the necessary processing fees.  Coleman appealed to the Fourth Circuit.  The Fourth Circuit addressed two issues.

The first issue was whether Coleman had exhausted his administrative remedies. The Fourth Circuit held that when an agency does not act within the timeframe provided by the FOIA (20 days), the requester has constructively exhausted administrative remedies.  Because the DEA waited over four months on the last request, Coleman constructively exhausted his administrative remedies.  The Court further held that the DEA could not prevent constructive exhaustion by denying his request after the suit was filed, rather an agency can only defeat a potential suit by ruling on the FOIA request prior to the suit is initiated.

The second issue was whether judicial review is inappropriate because Coleman failed to pay the $1,640 partial search fee assessed by the DEA.  The Fourth Circuit distinguished this case from Pollack v. Department of Justice, 49 F.3d 115 (4th Cir. 1995) because Coleman had not refused to pay any fee at all, which is what Pollack had done.  Since Coleman is challenging the substance of the agency’s fee and requesting a bona fide fee waiver, judicial review is appropriate in this case.  The Fourth Circuit remanded the case to the District Court to determine what fee category applies and whether Coleman is eligible for a fee waiver.

Full Opinion

– Jeffrey K. Gurney