FIA-19-0007 - In the Matter of Future Systems Enterprises

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On March 25, 2019, the Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) granted in part and denied in part a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) appeal filed by Future Systems Enterprises, Inc. (Appellant) from a final determination issued by the Department of Energy's Golden Field Office (GFO). Appellant's FOIA request sought the names of applicants for certain DOE funding opportunities, the titles of the projects for which they sought funding, and the names of the persons who reviewed the applications. In its response, the GFO provided Appellant with a one-page summary document, withheld all responsive records containing the names of applicants and their project titles pursuant to Exemptions 4 and 6, and withheld the names of the persons who reviewed the applications pursuant to Exemptions 5 and 6. On appeal, Appellant asserted that the names of applicants and the titles of their applications for DOE funding were not trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is privileged and confidential under Exemption 4, that the GFO could have redacted deliberative information from responsive documents under Exemption 5 while providing him with the names of persons who reviewed applications for DOE funding, and that any privacy interests persons who reviewed applications and applicants for DOE funding have under Exemption 6 is outweighed by the substantial public interest in revealing conflicts of interest and biases among reviewers. OHA found that the GFO had not adequately established that disclosing the names of the applicants and the titles of their projects would impair DOE's ability to obtain necessary information in the future or cause substantial harm to the competitive position of the applicants under Exemption 4. OHA also found that the GFO misapplied Exemption 6 with respect to the names of businesses that applied for DOE funding because Exemption 6 relates to the privacy of natural persons and not businesses. As to the identities of the persons who reviewed the applications, OHA concluded that the GFO properly applied Exemption 6. Although the public has an interest in identifying biases and conflicts of interests among reviewers, the risk of harassment of the reviewers by disgruntled applicants for DOE funding outweighed the marginal light that disclosing the reviewers' names would shed on their potential conflicts of interest. Accordingly, OHA granted Appellant's appeal with respect to the names of applicants for DOE funding and their project titles, denied Appellant's appeal with respect to the identities of the persons who reviewed the applications, and remanded the matter to the GFO for further processing. OHA Case No. FIA-19-0007.