District Court grants SBA’s summary judgment in Covid-19 relief disclosure case
On December 13, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted summary judgment in a Freedom of Information (FOIA) case in favor of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) (defendant), resolving allegations that the agency improperly withheld loan payment status and tax-identification numbers for recipients of loans under its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). As previously covered by InfoBytes, national-news organizations filed an action against the SBA seeking disclosure of loan recipient information, after the rejection of their FOIA requests. The court previously ordered the SBA to disclose some information—loan amounts, names, addresses—but later gave the SBA a second chance to argue against disclosure of default status and tax-identification numbers.
According to the most recent opinion, the SBA ultimately satisfied Exemption 4 to FOIA (related to confidential or privileged commercial or financial information) as to the current loan status of the PPP loans by filing declarations from lenders stating that they “customarily and actually treat interim PPP loan status as confidential.” The court also concluded that disclosure would concretely cause harm to an interest protected by the FOIA exemption, accepting the agency’s arguments that identifying a delinquent borrower, even if that status is temporary or ultimately irrelevant, could “negatively impact the borrower’s reputation or creditworthiness, or adversely affect its survivability and growth,” and that “disclosure would cause ‘regulated lenders [to] lose confidence in the agency’s future ability to protect confidential information . . . creat[ing] an incentive not to participate in the agency’s programs.’” Regarding tax-identification numbers, the court accepted the SBA’s assertion that it could not separate Social Security Numbers (SSN) from Employer Identification Numbers (EIN) and only release the EINs. Withholding the identification number data set was therefore permissible under Exemption 6 to FOIA, regarding “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The SBA had attempted to get the help of the IRS and Social Security Administration to differentiate the numbers, but both agencies concluded they could not legally release that information to the SBA.