102 F.3d 688 (2nd Cir. 1996), 278, United Technologies Corp. by Pratt & Whitney v. F.A.A.

Docket Nº:278, Docket 96-6076.
Citation:102 F.3d 688
Case Date:December 23, 1996
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

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102 F.3d 688 (2nd Cir. 1996)




No. 278, Docket 96-6076.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

December 23, 1996

Argued Oct. 18, 1996.

Charles J. Cooper, Washington, DC (J.E. Murdock III, Vincent J. Colatriano, Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge, Washington, DC, on the brief), for plaintiff-appellant.

William A. Collier, Asst. U.S. Atty., Hartford, Conn. (Christopher F. Droney, U.S. Atty., New Haven, CT, John M. Walsh, Fed. Aviation Admin., Washington, DC, on the brief), for defendant-appellee.

Before: NEWMAN, Chief Judge, LEVAL, Circuit Judge, and OBERDORFER, District Judge. [*]

OBERDORFER, District Judge.

This appeal presents the unusual question of whether the "confidential information" exemption to the Freedom of Information Act

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("FOIA") applies where the FOIA requester already has access through other sources to the allegedly confidential information. Appellant United Technologies Corp., by its division Pratt & Whitney ("Pratt & Whitney" or "P & W") appeals from the February 5, 1996, judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (T.F. Gilroy Daly, Judge). The District Court held that the exemption applied, and granted summary judgment in favor of appellee Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA"). Pratt & Whitney contends that the District Court erred in refusing to consider the individuating circumstance in this case that Pratt & Whitney already has knowledge of the confidential information contained in the withheld documents.

We believe that the individuating circumstances of a third-party FOIA requester are irrelevant here, and therefore affirm the judgment of the District Court.



Pratt & Whitney is a corporation engaged in the business of designing, manufacturing, and selling aircraft engines and replacement parts. Pursuant to the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, before an aircraft engine may be used in civil aviation, its design must be approved by the FAA. The manufacturer must submit detailed drawings, designs, and specifications relating to the aircraft engine and its component parts. These specifications are not made available to the general public and are considered the proprietary information of the manufacturer. Upon approval of the engine, the FAA issues a "type certificate" to the manufacturer. See 49 U.S.C.App. § 44704 (1994).

The FAA has also instituted a regulatory scheme governing the manufacture and sale of replacement parts. Any person, in addition to the manufacturer, may apply to the FAA for a Parts Manufacturer Approval ("PMA"), which allows the holder to manufacture and sell specific replacement parts directly to the owners of aircraft engines. One method of obtaining a PMA is to demonstrate that "the design of the [replacement] part is identical to the design of a[n original] part ... covered under a type certificate." See 14 C.F.R. § 21.303(c)(4) (1996). A PMA issued through this method is known as an "identicality" PMA. Identicality, however, does not require that the specifications for a replacement part be exactly the same as those for the original part. Rather, identicality requires only:

that the FAA has determined from a comparison of the two sets of data and drawings, and any other data it finds relevant, that the PMA part will be an adequate replacement for the original part as to fit, form, and function.


This lawsuit arose in late 1991 when Pratt & Whitney came to believe that the FAA was issuing a large number of identicality PMAs for replacement parts in P & W engines. Pratt & Whitney claims that it had further reason to believe that certain PMA applicants were improperly obtaining PMAs by using P & W proprietary information. Subsequently, Pratt & Whitney submitted a FOIA request to the FAA, seeking the administrative record regarding the issuance of PMAs to two companies, Pyromet Industries ("Pyromet") and Turbine Kinetics ("TK").

Both Pyromet and TK had sought and received identicality PMAs for replacement parts in P & W engines. The FAA, in response to Pratt & Whitney's FOIA request, disclosed approximately 200 pages of documents in their entirety. Another eleven pages of documents were withheld in part, and approximately forty-seven pages of documents were withheld completely. Of those documents withheld, the most important are the ones containing the Pyromet and TK design drawings. The FAA invoked FOIA Exemption 4, which exempts from disclosure "trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential." See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4) (1994).

Pratt & Whitney objected to the FAA's withholding of those documents and sought administrative recourse. On administrative appeal, the FAA reiterated its earlier decision that the documents submitted by Pyromet

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and TK contained confidential information. With respect to the Pyromet design drawings, although Pratt & Whitney argued that any information submitted by a PMA applicant under the identicality provision must be, by definition, non-confidential to the holder of the type certificate, the FAA responded:

We are not able to resolve competing claims of property rights. We accept at face value any submitter's claim that it has a protectable proprietary interest in data it submits to the FAA so long as the data appears on its face to be proprietary to the submitter and nothing in our records indicates that the information is not normally held confidential to the submitter.... That is the case with the Pyromet drawings. You offer nothing by way of argument as to why documents that are prima facie proprietary to other companies should be released to a FOIA requester.

The FAA provided a similar rationale for its withholding of the TK design drawings.

In June 1993, Pratt & Whitney filed suit in the District of Connecticut to compel the FAA to disclose the withheld documents. After the District Court referred the case to a magistrate judge, both parties moved for summary judgment. In November 1995, the magistrate judge issued a Recommended Ruling in favor of the FAA. He first concluded that Pratt & Whitney did not have any special right of access. In doing so, he rejected Pratt & Whitney's argument that its request should be treated differently from those of all other FOIA requesters because it already had knowledge of the confidential information. Secondly, the magistrate judge determined that the withheld documents were "confidential" within the meaning of Exemption 4, since their disclosure would cause substantial harm to the competitive positions of Pyromet and TK.

On February 5, 1996, the District Court adopted the Recommended Ruling of the magistrate judge and entered judgment in favor of the FAA. Pratt & Whitney now appeals.


Pratt & Whitney contends that, since the documents in this case were submitted to the FAA under the identicality provision, Pratt & Whitney already has, by the very nature of that provision, access to any supposedly confidential information contained in the withheld documents. At oral argument, however, there was some discussion as to whether the Pyromet and TK design drawings were in fact...

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