Jan. 21, 2011
District Court Rules That Outdated Documents Are Not ‘Trade Secrets’ Under FOIA
Following U.S. Supreme Court Reversal, District Court Says That Material Requested Under FOIA Must Be Released
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cannot block an airplane enthusiast’s request for the design specifications of an antique aircraft because the information is neither secret nor commercially valuable, a Washington, D.C., district court has ruled.
Airplane enthusiast Brent Taylor filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in August 2002 for records relating to a 1930s-era antique aircraft, the Fairchild F-45. After receiving no response from the agency, Taylor filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The district court dismissed the case, concluding that Taylor had been “virtually represented” by the plaintiff in a previous FOIA case over the same documents. Taylor’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, rejecting the theory of “virtual representation,” reversed the lower courts.
Back at the district court, the FAA claimed the requested information should not be disclosed to Taylor because it contained trade secrets. However, in 1955, the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation, the makers of the aircraft in question, sent a letter to the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), the predecessor to the FAA, authorizing the agency to “loan” certification materials – which included specific design information – to members of the public who wanted to repair their aircraft. Fairchild revoked the permission in response to a similar FOIA request in 1997.
The court ruled this week that when Fairchild in 1955 allowed the CAA to release the documents to people who would have no obligation to keep them secret, the documents stopped being secret. Therefore, the information in the documents no longer qualifies as “trade secrets” that can be withheld under FOIA, and the government is obligated to release the documents. The court also ruled that the aircraft’s specifications are not trade secrets because they are no longer commercially valuable, as the technology is outdated and Fairchild no longer manufactures aircraft.
“We’re glad that the court recognized the limits on characterizing records as trade secrets under FOIA,” said Adina Rosenbaum, the Public Citizen attorney who represented Taylor. “The government should not be withholding as trade secrets documents that are not commercially valuable and that were allowed to be released for more than 40 years.”
To learn more about this case, visit: https://www.citizen.org/our-work/litigation/cases/taylor-v-sturgell-taylor-v-babbitt-and-fairchild.
Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org.