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Office of the Secretary (OS) FOIA OFFICE FAQS

Table of Contents

  1. Do I need to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?
  2. What types of records can I request under the FOIA?
  3. How do I submit a FOIA request to the OS FOIA Requester Service Center?
  4. Do I need to use special forms to make a request?
  5. How does the OS office process FOIA requests?
  6. What is the cut-off date for including records to fulfill a request?
  7. How long will it take OS to respond to my request?
  8. Can I request expedited processing?
  9. What kinds of records can be withheld?
  10. How do I know if the FOIA office has withheld records?
  11. What if I disagree with why records were withheld or if no records were located?
  12. What happens if OS does not have the records I want?
  13. Is there a fee for filing a FOIA request?
  14. How can I reach the OS FOIA Office?

 

  1. Do I need to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?
    In response to Open Government initiatives, HHS places a high priority on making its records available to the public on the internet.  HHS organizational components’ home pages provide access to a large volume of information already available.  For further information, see http://www.hhs.gov/about/infoguid.html#pub.

  2. What types of records can I request under the FOIA?
    Under the FOIA, you can request any records that are in an agency's possession and control and are not in the public domain.  Records considered under the public domain are those that could be found in a library or available from a clearinghouse. 

    The FOIA requests for records that may be located at any of the major operating divisions (CDC, FDA, NIH, etc.) should be submitted to the relevant FOIA Requester Service Center.  We recommend that before submitting the FOIA request, you first consult the Guide to Information Resources, in order to determine which component of HHS is most likely to have the records being requested (http://www.hhs.gov/about/infoguid.html#pub).  The addresses for HHS FOIA Requester Service Centers can be found at http://www.hhs.gov/foia/contacts/index.html

    Each FOIA Service Center webpage includes the direct contact information for the FOIA office for that organization. 

  3. How do I submit a FOIA request to the OS FOIA Requester Service Center?
    There are three ways to submit a FOIA request:
    1. Online - Go to the OS “Submit a Request” web page and complete the form.
    2. Mail - Submit your request to the OS FOIA Office at the following address:

      OS Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts Division
      330 C Street, S.W.
      Switzer Building, Room 2206
      Washington, D.C.  20201
    3. Fax – Fax a letter stating your request to:  (202) 690-8320

  4. Do I need to use special forms to make a request?
    No, but you may complete the online form located at the Submit a Request web page, or mail or fax a letter with as much detail as possible about the specific records you need and which  organizational component you believe may have the records.  As a guide for what information to include in making a request by mail or fax, you can reference the Submit a Request webpage. 

    If you request medical or personnel records, you must provide a consent form that names the person to whom the records pertain, a statement that HHS may release the records requested, with date and signature of the individual to whom the records pertain (for adults), and notarization.

    If you request the records of a minor (a person under 18 years of age) your consent form must be signed by the minor's parent or guardian. The relationship between the minor and the person signing must be noted on the consent form.

  5. How does the OS office process FOIA requests?
    1. Request is received and logged in.
    2. Request is sent to program office within HHS for a search for responsive records.
    3. Program office conducts a search and sends responsive records, if any, to the FOIA Office.
    4. The FOIA office reviews the records; coordinates with other components, agencies and entities that have in interest in the disposition of the records; prepares records for release or withholding as appropriate under the FOIA, and responds with any released records to the requester.

  6. What is the cut-off date for including records to fulfill a request?
    In the original request, you are encouraged to specify the range of dates of the records you need.  If you do not specify the time period which you would like the search to cover, the cut-off date will be the date on which the search is performed. 

  7. How long will it take OS to respond to my request?
    When your request is logged into the tracking system, you will receive a letter or card to acknowledge its receipt.  Under the FOIA, agencies initially have 20 working days and may take additional ten (10) working days to respond to the request.  The OS FOIA office will do its best to meet this deadline, but the nature of your request can be a factor in the speed of processing. 

    Some factors affecting the processing may include:  
    1. whether or not your request asks for a large volume of records, as opposed to a small amount,
    2. the detail and adequacy of the description of the records you want,
    3. whether or not a search must done in multiple organizational components and/or geographical locations, 
    4. whether the request requires significant consultation or coordination with various components or agencies,
    5. whether your letter includes a statement of willingness to pay all FOIA processing fees,
    6. whether or not the request requires substantial review of material which may be exempt from release, or
    7. whether the request is complex in other ways, for example, if it seeks very old records, or if the information requires consultation with the original submitter of proprietary data prior to release.

    To assure a faster processing time for your request, we ask that you:
    1. limit your request to the minimum records needed,
    2. provide a clear and concise description of the information sought, including any available information as to which organizational component or geographic location you believe may contain the records, and
    3. provide a statement of willingness to pay FOIA processing services fees.

  8. Can I request expedited processing?
    Expedited processing is not typically applicable for most requests, but may be granted in certain instances.

    For more information on expedited processing, please see the U.S. Department of Justice’s FOIA Guide at www.usdoj.gov/oip/procereq.htm#expedited

  9. What kinds of records can be withheld?
    Under the FOIA, the government may withhold portions or all of some records if the records contain information that falls under any of the nine FOIA exemptions.  The OS FOIA Office makes every attempt to provide a full release where possible, this is not always possible.  The following are the most commonly cited exemptions which form the basis for withholding records.
    1. Exemption 3: Protects information that is prohibited from disclosure by a statute other than the FOIA.   
    2. Exemption 4: Protects trade secrets and confidential commercial or financial information.  
    3. Exemption 5: Permits the withholding of inter- and intra-agency records, which are predecisional and contain staff advice, opinion and recommendation.  This exemption is intended to preserve free and candid internal dialogue leading to decision-making, and includes the attorney-client privilege and/or the attorney work product privilege.
    4. Exemption 6: Permits the withholding of information that if released would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.
    5. Exemption 7: Protects certain law enforcement records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes.

      “Congress also provided special protection in the FOIA for three narrow categories of law enforcement and national security records. The provisions protecting those records are known as “exclusions.” The first exclusion protects the existence of an ongoing criminal law enforcement investigation when the subject of the investigation is unaware that it is pending and disclosure could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings. The second exclusion is limited to criminal law enforcement agencies and protects the existence of informant records when the informant’s status has not been officially confirmed. The third exclusion is limited to the FBI and protects the existence of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence, or international terrorism records when the existence of such records is classified. Records falling within an exclusion are not subject to the requirements of the FOIA. So, when a component responds to your request it will limit its response to those records that are subject to the FOIA.”

    To learn more about the exemptions, you may wish to view the FOIA, as amended, including the statutory exemption language: (http://www.justice.gov/oip/amended-foia-redlined-2010.pdf).

  10. How do I know if the FOIA office has withheld records?
    In the response letter you receive from the OS FOIA office, there will be a statement concerning which, if any, records were withheld, in full or in part, and which exemptions provides for withholding the records. 

    In all cases, it is the intent of the OS FOIA Office to release the records requested to the fullest extent possible.

  11. What if I disagree with why records were withheld, or if no records were located?
    If records are withheld, in part or in full, your response letter will include a statement of your appeal rights.  The letter will say that you may appeal and provide instructions on how to appeal. 

    If you do appeal, it will be logged into the OS FOIA tracking system, and the initial request will be reconsidered in light of the issues you raise in your appeal.  The Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA), or his/her designee, will respond on behalf of the Department as to the final determination on the appeal. 
    • If the decision is to reverse, in whole or part, an initial determination to withhold records, you will receive the records that were withheld.  If your appeal is denied, you may contact the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), which offers mediation services to resolve disputes between FOIA requesters and Federal agencies.  Using OGIS services does not affect your right to pursue litigation.
    • If your appeal is denied, you may file a FOIA lawsuit in the U.S. District Court where you live, in the district where the documents are located, or in the District of Columbia.

  12. What happens if OS does not have the records I want?
    The OS FOIA office will respond in writing if the records were not located, and will also inform you of your right to appeal.

    If you appeal, the appeal will be logged into the OS FOIA tracking system, and will be forwarded to whatever organizations may have records, including those which originally performed a search, for a follow-up search.  The search results will be reviewed, and the ASPA or his/her designee will assess and make the final decision as to the adequacy of the search.

    If the OS FOIA office is aware that another Department or Federal agency may have records you want, they will inform you of this. 

  13. Is there a fee for filing a FOIA request?
    We are allowed to recover part of the costs associated with the processing of FOIA requests.  Unless you state a specific fee limit in your request, we will assume that you are willing to pay all the fees incurred in the processing of your request and we may contact you concerning the fees. 

    If your estimated fees exceed $250.00, you may be given the opportunity to narrow your request in order to reduce the fees or to confirm your commitment to pay the estimated amount.

    You may wish to specify, in your request, the amount of fees you are willing to pay.  We will then notify you if the anticipated fees will exceed this limit, and ask whether you wish us to proceed with the processing of your request.

    The need to clarify fee issues or the absence of your willingness to pay processing costs could result in the delay or cancellation of your request.  We ask each requester, therefore, to provide a statement of willing to pay all FOIA processing costs, as the amount of search and review time involved in processing your request may not be readily apparent.

    For purposes of fee assessments, the FOIA divides requesters into three categories: commercial use requesters; representatives of the media, and educational or noncommercial scientific institutions whose purpose is scholarly or scientific research; and, all other requesters.

    For more information on fees/fee waivers see the Department's implementing regulations at 45 CFR part 5, Subpart D (http://www.hhs.gov/foia/45cfr5.html#Subd).

  14. How can I reach the OS FOIA Office?
    The OS FOIA Office can be reached by:
    • Phone, please call (202) 690-7453, or
    • Fax at 202-690-8320, or
    • Mail at:
    • OS Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts Division
      330 C Street, S.W.
      Switzer Building, Room 2206
      Washington, D.C.  20201