DC Court Denies Preliminary Injunction to NYT for Expedited Processing of Vaccine FOIA

The District of Columbia district court will not order a pair of United States agencies to expedite their processing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by The New York Times Co. (NYT) for data related to the nation’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution, per a Sunday opinion.

NYT filed a motion for a preliminary injunction on March 11 in the hopes that the court would compel the Defense Health Agency (DHA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to fast-track the newspaper company’s Dec. 24, 2020, separate but identical requests to both agencies for “a massive volume of ‘de-identified’ data, broken down by state, geographic zip code and/or county, about vaccination distribution, recipient demographics, including race, ethnicity, age group and occupation, comorbidities, priority groups, usage and waste, providers, manufacturers, and adverse reactions,” the court explained.

The plaintiff believed it was entitled to the requested data for the sake of informing the public as to how COVID-19 “vaccines are being distributed by the federal government” and “whether healthcare providers are administering vaccinations in an equitable way,” according to the FOIA request to the DHA. NYT also wished for expedited processing of 20 business days, the court noted.

NYT’s request for injunctive relief stipulated a response by the defendants for “virtually immediate production of records,” the court explained, a kind of relief considered extraordinary in that a plaintiff requesting it must argue that it will “suffer irreparable harm” without it.

The court said NYT’s request fails because it does not seek the kind of instant and noncomprehensive relief for which a preliminary injunction calls; instead, the court found that the plaintiff has asked for “the full relief” for which is calls in its original complaint, siding with the defendants’ argument that the plaintiff could not show its entitlement to the injunction because of a lack of pleadings with respect to immediate injunctive relief.

Further, the court said that, “given the likely massive volume of responsive data, with the concomitant heavy processing burden on defendants and resulting disruption of the ordinary FOIA processing on similarly-situated FOIA requesters, the balance of equities and the public interest do not favor preliminary injunctive relief here.”

Regardless of the merits of NYT’s request, however, the court said that NYT “appears to misapprehend the way in which the FOIA operates,” finding that the plaintiff’s argument for its entitlement to the injunction stemming from the failure of the agencies to respond within 20 days fundamentally does not mean NYT is entitled to expedited processing — it just means that NYT would not have had to exhaust administrative remedies before suing the defendants.

“While agencies have 20 working days to ‘make a determination with adequate specificity, such that any withholding can be appealed administratively,’ ” the court explained, “the consequence of agency delay in rendering such a determination bears only on the requester’s ability to get into court.”

Both parties retain internal counsel.