How are Vexatious Requests Impacting Public Records?

Persistence can be a good characteristic; but when it crosses the line into burdensome public records requests, persistence can become vexatious. Vexatious requesters bombard government agencies with requests for public records, creating a volume that cannot be managed within reasonable timeframes. These actions add an unnecessary burden to already strained government entities and in some cases, result in unwanted litigation.

Depending on staffing and other resources, government agencies can find it challenging to keep up with the normal flow of FOIA requests. Vexatious requesters’ goal is to clog up the system; and repeated attempts (in frequency or volume) to access public records go beyond the spirit of the law. 

In response, government agencies are finding ways to curb vexatious requests while remaining compliant with legitimate ones. 

Vexatious Requests in Action

Requesters who file unreasonable, unnecessary, or frivolous requests develop a reputation in some cities as being vexatious. This label can be harmful to the requesting party and can result in the requester being banned from requesting future information for a period of time. 

A Connecticut citizen became the subject of a petition filed with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission. The resident filed hundreds of requests, often in duplicate, and was referred to as “a vexatious, serial FOIA filer, whose requests are routinely unlimited and/or unreasonable in scope or content.”

In Snohomish County, Washington, an anonymous requester sought all public records of any kind from all county-owned smartphones, a request which was estimated to take 12,000 hours to fulfill. The request was canceled about 900 hours into the request, costing the county $30,000. 

What Governments are Doing to Fight Back

Vexatious requests like the one in Snohomish County have led government agencies to take action to better protect their resources. Jurisdictions are facing not only increasing numbers of requests, but without proper technology, the costs of fulfilling these requests are also on the rise. Some state and local governments have initiated policies to recoup costs for vexatious requests; others seek additional employees to help fulfill requests.

Some jurisdictions are taking it a step further and are introducing bills to change the government response to these types of requests. Connecticut introduced HB 5175 in an effort to deny vexatious requesters access to public records for up to one year. Similarly, Tennessee SB 135 seeks to restrict public records access for people deemed as “harassing.” Lawmakers in Delaware are considering exemptions to target those abusing FOIA requests and would require people seeking public records to pay new fees.

Software Solutions to Help Curb Vexatious Requesters

Public records software solutions can provide the first line of defense against vexatious requesters. Deflection tools help prevent duplicate requests from being submitted into a system and allow requesters to view and search previous requests which can be selected by the agency and proactively shared to all. Properly designed intake forms can also help flag repeat (and potentially vexatious) requesters while streamlining the request process and reducing the overall workload that vexatious requests create for government agencies.

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The Peers in Public Records Newsletter (formerly FOIA News) is a bi-monthly e-newsletter brought to you by GovQA. It is a collection of the latest trends in public record requests and government transparency initiatives, shared stories, live roundtables, informative case studies, and actionable knowledge that will help you calm the chaos and keep your organization compliant. Send your comments to peers@govqa.com.

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