District Court Rules CFPB Violates FOIA in Withholding Documents Produced in Response to CID; Upholds Other CFPB Interpretations of FOIA
On December 14, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that any CFPB policy considering information provided to the CFPB in response to CID requests to have been submitted “voluntarily” and therefore exempt from public disclosure violates the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In response to a lawsuit filed by a consumer class action law firm, the court reviewed numerous claims related to the CFPB’s use of FOIA Exemptions. As explained in the opinion, the D.C. Circuit views information provided voluntarily to government entities as “more stringently protected” than compulsory submissions in determining whether materials qualify as “confidential” under FOIA Exemption 4. The court, in granting summary judgment, agreed with the plaintiff in holding that the CFPB had “actual legal authority” to issue the CID and obtain the related materials, and therefore the CFPB cannot treat information produced in response as having been disclosed voluntarily. In addressing other claims, however, the court agreed with the CFPB that documents it relied upon to identify wrongful collection lawsuits were exempt from public disclosure under FOIA Exemption 7(E), which protects “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes,” and that CFPB attorney notes from a settlement conversation were exempt under FOIA Exemption 5, which protects intra-agency memoranda and has been interpreted to protect attorney work product. The court also supported the CFPB’s policy treating debt collectors and debt buyers as financial institutions as consistent with FOIA Exemption 8 related to financial institution information, finding that debt collectors “as a link in the credit-management chain” fit comfortably within the “inherently broad” term financial institutions.