FOIA can't be used in whistle-blower suits

May 16, 2011 at 11:22 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 16 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-3 Monday Freedom of Information Act disclosures cannot be used in federal whistle-blower suits.

The U.S. False Claims Act, designed to recover fraudulently obtained federal funds, allows private whistle-blower lawsuits but bars them when they are "based upon the public disclosure of allegations or transactions in a criminal, civil or administrative hearing, in a congressional, administrative or Government Accounting Office report, hearing, audit or investigation, or from the news media."

A Vietnam veteran filed a "qui tam," or whistle-blower, suit under the False Claims Act against the Schindler Elevator Group. The suit alleged the company collected payments from government contracts while fraudulently reporting the number of Vietnam veterans it employed, as required by federal law.

The veteran used information obtained by his wife from the U.S. Labor Department through FOIA requests to support the allegations in the suit. A federal appeals court in New York eventually allowed the use of the FOIA information, ruling that a FOIA request is neither a "report" nor an "investigation" barred by the False Claims Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court, splitting along ideological lines, disagreed, ruling that a federal agency's written response to a FOIA request is a "report" within the meaning of the law. The opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas and announced by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The majority's opinion reverses the appeals court's ruling and sends the case back down for a new ruling consistent with the opinion.

Justice Elena Kagan, who was U.S. solicitor general during part of the case, did not participate at the U.S. Supreme Court level.

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