May 2, 2013 4th Circuit published opinion

Coleman v Drug Enforcement Administration

Coleman field a Freedom of information Act request with DEA seeking documents related to a commercially available drug. Over a year passed before DEA denied the request on the rounds that Coleman was a commercial requester. Coleman appealed. He prevailed but the decision took 7 months to process. Coleman filed another request challenging the commercial designation and seeking a fee waiver. After DEA failed to respond for several months, Coleman sued for enforcement of his FOIA request. The district court dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The panel reversed. It held the Act gave DEA 20 days to respond to the request and the appeals agency 20 days to handle the appeal. Neither deadline was met. Thus, the Act allowed suit. The result was not changed by the belated response of DEA after the suit was filed as the time for analyzing exhaustion is the date the lawsuit was filed. Nor is there any requirement that Coleman pay the fees claimed by DEA before filing suit as there is no prepayment requirement in the Act. Noting there was no excuse for DEA’s conduct, the panel remanded for prompt resolution of the FOIA request.

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