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FOIA Update: Supreme Court Decides FLRA Privacy Issue

FOIA Update
Vol. XV, No. 2

Supreme Court Decides FLRA Privacy Issue

Following a "somewhat convoluted path of statutory cross-references" between the FOIA, the Privacy Act of 1974, and the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Act (FSLMRA), the United States Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed its Reporters Committee "core purpose" test for determining the "public interest" under the FOIA's privacy exemptions, holding that the home addresses of federal employees are protected under Exemption 6.

In DOD v. FLRA, 114 S. Ct. 1006 (1994), the Court resolved a split among the circuit courts of appeals stemming from the Federal Labor Relations Authority's efforts to compel disclosure of employee home addresses to labor unions under the FSLMRA -- which provides that "agencies must, 'to the extent not prohibited by law,' furnish unions with data that is necessary for collective-bargaining purposes." Finding that the employee addresses are covered by the Privacy Act, it ruled that "unless FOIA would require release . . . , their disclosure is 'prohibited by law,' and the agencies may not reveal them to the unions."

Turning to whether disclosure of the records would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, the Supreme Court determined that "the employees' interest in nondisclosure is not insubstantial." As to the public interest side of the balance, it held that under Reporters Committee the "relevant public interest" was "negligible, at best" -- even though disclosure "might allow the unions to communicate more effectively with employees" -- because it "would reveal little or nothing about the employing agencies or their activities." The Court concluded by flatly rejecting the FLRA's attempt to transfer to the FOIA the congressional finding of "public interest" in "labor organizations and collective bargaining" embodied in the FSLMRA.

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Updated August 13, 2014