Friday, June 24, 2011

Privacy preserving FOIA lawsuits

Several weeks ago, after an extremely successful online fundraising effort to cover the costs, I filed a FOIA complaint in Washington, DC Federal District Court.

Before filing the complaint, I looked through the court website and paid particular attention to a document posted there, titled Information for Parties Who Wish to File a Civil Complaint (pdf), which states:
The name of this Court must be written at the top of the first page [of the complaint]. The complete name and address for each plaintiff must be included in the caption of the complaint. A Post Office Box is insufficient as an address, unless you file a separate motion asking the Court to permit such an address.
Since moving to Washington DC, I've tried to keep my residential address out of databases, primarily by using a PO Box for everything possible. As such, I wasn't too keen on my home address showing up in a public court docket. Following the guidance given by the court, I put my PO box address on my FOIA complaint and filed an accompanying Motion To Include PO Box Address on Complaint.

Two weeks later, I called the court clerk to find out the status of the case, I was told that my motion had been rejected and that the my complaint and all the accompanying documents had been sent back to me.

The clerk didn't actually tell me the reason why the motion had been rejected, and so as soon as I returned to DC, I refiled the complaint with my home address, which was promptly docketed by the clerk.

Several days later, an envelope from the clerk arrived in the mail, which included a copy of the motion that I had filed. Written on it was a note by Judge Royce Lamberth, informing me that my motion was denied, but that the court would reconsider it if I provided my residence address to be filed under seal for the court and defendants.

This news came too late for me -- my home address is now in the DC court docket (something I am still rather upset about), but perhaps this information will be useful to others.

Motion for Po Box Denied


dre said...

Use your attorney's address?

Get a UPS Store mailbox?

Dave Bahr said...


Judge Lamberth's suggestion to file the document under seal makes perfect sense in that it protects both a pro se plaintiff's privacy interest in his address while also allowing the court to monitor who is seeking its review. A PO box address does not provide the same level of connection to a person, and the corresponding ability to verify identity, as their address. Moreover, this ability to verify a plaintiff's identity is important to assure a defendant of its ability to verify who is suing it. This is why the federal rules of procedure require that all documents filed with the court must contain "the signer's address, e-mail address, and telephone number." FRCP 11(a).

The DC court's info sheet for pro se plaintiffs that you link to does not mention the option of filing under seal, it would be nice if it did. However, it is probably not too late to file a motion to seal/redact your home address, not only for future submissions but also retroactively to redact the info on the complaint, "nunc pro tunc."

Dave Bahr

Anonymous said...

That sucks. Seems silly to require your residence address.

Personally, I rent a private mailbox from a private company. The address looks like "123 Main Street #456", so it looks like an apartment number rather than a PO Box. I find plenty of places that refuse a PO box but they've always accepted my apartment-seeming address. (Some of them like to translate it to "123 Main Street Apt 456", and I let them. The mail still arrives.)

Casey Disconnects said...

You can still redact your address and substitute the redacted copy of the motion. Call the clerk and tell them the problem, they should be able to instruct you. If not, give me an email and I will try to help walk you through it.