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Multiple Post-Argus Decisions Hold No “Assurance of Confidentiality” Required for FOIA Exemption 4

August 6, 2021

In a string of recent cases following the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, multiple courts have held that a party submitting information to the government need not demonstrate it obtained an assurance of confidentiality from the government in order for the agency to justify withholding that information in response to an information request made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  (Crowell & Moring previously wrote about the new test instituted by Argus Leader here.) 

FOIA Exemption 4 allows agencies to withhold documents otherwise responsive to a FOIA request if the documents contain “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential.”  As discussed in our previous post analyzing the Argus Leader decision, the Supreme Court had left open the question of whether the submitting party must have received some assurance from the government that the information would be kept confidential.  Recently, in The Washington Post v. U.S. Small Business Administration, the District of Columbia District Court followed the lead of other post-Argus Leader decisions in “declin[ing] to ‘read the word confidential to impose a blanket requirement that the government provide an assurance of privacy in every case in which it asserts Exemption 4.”  This ruling follows the court’s observation in Renewable Fuels Assoc. v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that “no court has yet held that ‘privately held information lose[s] its confidential character for purposes of Exemption 4 if it's communicated to the government without’ privacy assurances.”  These decisions signal that no “assurance of confidentiality” requirement currently exists.

For more information, please contact the professional(s) listed below, or your regular Crowell & Moring contact.

Daniel W. Wolff
Partner – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1.202.624.2621
Anuj Vohra
Partner – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1.202.624.2502
John E. McCarthy Jr.
Partner – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1.202.624.2579
Monica DiFonzo Sterling
Counsel – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1.202.624.2549