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Ctr. for the Study of Servs. v. HHS, No. 14-498, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85273 (D.D.C. July 1, 2015) (Kessler, J.)

Date

Ctr. for the Study of Servs. v. HHS, No. 14-498, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85273 (D.D.C. July 1, 2015) (Kessler, J.)

Re: Request for records concerning health plans offered pursuant to Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

Disposition: Denying plaintiff's motion for summary judgment; denying defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment

  • Litigation considerations, Mootness and Other grounds for Dismissal:  The court holds that "the controversy described in Plaintiff's Complaint is not moot but ongoing."  The court explains that, although defendant "has released the 2014 and 2015 plan year data that Plaintiff requested," "[t]he Government has made clear that, in future years, it plans to withhold the requested information under Exemption 4."  The court finds that "a 'specific request under the FOIA . . . will not moot a claim that an agency policy or practice will impair the party's lawful access to information in the future.'"  "Moreover, the time-sensitive nature of annually-updated plan benefits data renders the Government's allegedly unlawful withholding 'capable of repetition yet evading review.'"
     
  • Exemption 4:  The court holds that "[b]ecause the Government has failed to show either competitive harm or harm to program effectiveness, its Motion for Summary Judgment must be denied."  The court first notes that "the only question [before the court] is whether the requested information qualifies as 'confidential' under 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4)."  The court then relates that "the Parties agree that the . . . test, applicable to involuntary submissions of information, governs the Court's analysis in this case."  Turning first to the issue of competitive harm, the court finds that "the Government has put forth no reliable evidence of actual competition between insurers participating in the FFM."  Notably, the court reject's defendant's support in the form of "78 letters from insurers (or their parent companies) stating that disclosure of plan benefits information would likely cause competitive harm" because the court finds that "[t]he authors of the 78 letters HHS relies on were sent a carefully-worded letter presenting HHS' legal interpretation of Exemption 4 and asking whether each insurer's application information for a given plan year may be protected by Exemption 4."  The court finds that "it is not surprising that many of the letters describing the potential for competitive harm agree with the Government's position."  However, the court also finds that "one could conclude that there is actual competition from the letters' descriptions of competitive harm that would arise from pre-Open Enrollment disclosure of plan benefits data."  "Thus, neither Party has submitted sufficient convincing evidence to prevail on its Motion for Summary Judgment."  The court then addresses the likelihood of substantial competitive harm and first finds that "[w]hether one concludes that early release of the requested data could lead to undercutting depends on the light in which the evidence is examined."  "The record presented by the Parties is so incomplete and confusing on the issue of undercutting, that it alone precludes granting either Motion for Summary Judgment on this issue."  However, the court does finds that "Plaintiff is correct that the ACA 'has made it more difficult for [insurers] to compete on the basis of plan benefit design[,]'" and, therefore, "the Government['s position that] release of plan benefits data before the Open Enrollment Period would 'degrade[]' the 'incentive for innovation'" is not clear.  However, the court finds that "the existence of genuine issues of material fact regarding the Government's other grounds for withholding precludes a grant of summary judgment to Plaintiff."  In addition to the undercutting concept discussed above, the court also finds that defendant "has failed to show that the harm it claims will arise from consumer confusion would be caused by competitors' use of proprietary information as Exemption 4 requires[,]" and that defendant's argument "that early release of information 'would likely' lead insurers to initially provide the Government with false data and make last minute changes before plan finalization . . . is pure speculation."
Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Exemption 4
Litigation Considerations, Mootness and Other Grounds for Dismissal
Updated January 12, 2022