In 2004, AT&T had voluntarily reported to the FCC that it may have overcharged the government for various services the company provided as part of an FCC-administered program to open network access to schools and libraries. The AT&T entered into a consent decree to settle the charges brought by the FCC as a result of the disclosure. Subsequently, a trade association that included several AT&T competitors as members, filed a FOIA request to obtain “all pleadings and correspondence” the FCC had on file on regarding the AT&T matter. This case arguably represents the trend of the use of FOIA requests for corporate intelligence gathering.
AT&T opposed the request, seeking to exclude the materials it had previously provided to the FCC from landing in the hands of the company’s competitors. AT&T’s opposition was based on several FOIA exemptions. The FCC found several exemptions applied, but limited the applicability of the “personal privacy” exemption to the records of AT&T’s individual employees that the company provided to the FCC. AT&T argued that the exemption should also apply to the records of the AT&T corporate entity, but the FCC disagreed.
AT&T appealed the FCC’s decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The Third Circuit sided with AT&T, finding that FOIA’s “personal privacy” exemption extended to “persons,” including “an individual, partnership, corporation, association, or public or private organization other than an agency.” The FCC petitioned the Supreme Court for review.
The Supreme Court’s holding did not come as a great surprise, given that the oral argument on January 10, 2011 (audio here and transcript here) strongly suggested an FCC win. More interesting, perhaps, is the straightforward manner in which Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, dispensed of the matter as a basic issue of grammatical interpretation and dictionary definitions. The Court observed that “adjectives typically reflect the meaning of the corresponding nouns, but not always.” In this case, the Court highlighted the importance of the context of surrounding terms in the construction of statutory language, and the distinction between a “legal meaning” of a word and the ordinary one, citing to the Dictionary Act, 1 U.S.C. §1 (didn’t know there was a Dictionary Act?). The Court observed that AT&T did not cite “a single instance in which this Court or any other (aside from the Court of Appeals below) has expressly referred to a corporation’s ‘personal privacy.’ Nor does it identify any other statute that does so.” In a sign that the Court continues to have a sense of humor, Chief Justice Roberts expressed hope that AT&T would not “take it personally.”