Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Corporations Lack “Personal Privacy” Interests: High Court

This posting was written by Thomas A. Long, Editor of CCH Privacy Law in Marketing.

Corporations do not have “personal privacy” interests for the purposes of a provision of the Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. Supreme Court held on March 1 in an 8 to 0 decision. AT&T could not block disclosure of certain documents under FOIA’s Exemption 7(C), which covers law enforcement records that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

A trade association had submitted a FOIA request for documents AT&T had provided to the Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau during an investigation of that company. The Bureau found that Exemption 7(C) applied to individuals identified in AT&T’s submissions, but not to the company itself, because corporations do not have “personal privacy” interests as required by the exemption.

The FCC upheld the Enforcement Bureau’s interpretation, but the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia disagreed, reasoning that “personal” is the adjective form of the term “person,” FOIA’s definition of which included corporations.

"Person" as Individual

The Supreme Court rejected the appellate court’s reasoning. Although “person” was a defined term in the statute, “personal” was not. When a statute does not define a term, the Court typically applies the term’s “ordinary meaning.”

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, stated that “personal” ordinarily referred to individuals. Corporations are not usually regarded as having personal characteristics, personal effects, or personal tragedy, he said.

“Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always,” Roberts reasoned. “Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own.” For example, Roberts explained, the meaning of “crabbed” was distinct from “crab,” and “corny” was distinct from “corn.”

Absence of Other Statutory References

AT&T did not cite any other instance in which a court had expressly referred to a corporation’s “personal privacy,” Roberts noted, and it did not identify any other statute that did so. In addition, the term “personal privacy,” as used in FOIA Exemption 6—regarding personnel and medical files—had been interpreted by the Court as involving an individual’s privacy rights.

Justice Kagan did not take part in the consideration or decision of the case.

The March 1 decision in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T will appear in CCH Privacy Law in Marketing.

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