445 U.S. 375 (1980), 78-1248, GTE Sylvania, Inc. v. Consumers Union of the United States, Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 78-1248
Citation:445 U.S. 375, 100 S.Ct. 1194, 63 L.Ed.2d 467
Party Name:GTE Sylvania, Inc. v. Consumers Union of the United States, Inc.
Case Date:March 19, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 375

445 U.S. 375 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 1194, 63 L.Ed.2d 467

GTE Sylvania, Inc.

v.

Consumers Union of the United States, Inc.

No. 78-1248

United States Supreme Court

March 19, 1980

Argued November 28, 1979

CERTIORARI TO TIE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In connection with an investigation of hazards in the operation of television receivers, respondent Consumer Product Safety [100 S.Ct. 1196] Commission (CPSC) obtained various accident reports from television manufacturers, including petitioners. Respondents Consumers Union of the United States, Inc., and Public Citizen's Health Research Group (requesters) sought disclosure of the accident reports under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and the CPSC determined that the reports did not fall within any of the FOIA's exemptions and notified the requesters and the manufacturers that it would release the material on a specified date. Petitioners then filed suits in various Federal District Courts to enjoin disclosure of the allegedly confidential reports, which suits were consolidated in the Federal District Court for the District of Delaware. While those suits were pending, the requesters filed the instant action against the CPSC, its Chairman, Commissioners, and Secretary, and petitioners in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking release of the accident reports under the FOIA. That court dismissed the complaint while a motion for a preliminary injunction was still pending in Delaware, observing that the CPSC had assured the court that disclosure would be made as soon as the agency was not enjoined from doing so, and concluding, inter alia, that there was no Art. III case or controversy between the requesters and the federal defendants, and therefore no jurisdiction. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that there was a case or controversy between the requesters and the CPSC as to the scope and effect of the proceedings in Delaware, and that a permanent injunction which meanwhile had been issued in the Delaware proceedings did not foreclose the requesters' FOIA suit.

Held:

1. There is a case or controversy as required to establish jurisdiction pursuant to Art. III even though the CPSC agrees with the requesters that the documents should be released under the FOIA. While there is no case or controversy when the parties desire "precisely the same result," here the parties do not desire "precisely the same result," since

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the CPSC contends that the Delaware injunction prevents it from releasing the documents, whereas the requesters believe that an equitable decree obtained by the manufacturers in a suit in which the requesters were not parties cannot deprive them of their rights under the FOIA. Pp. 382-383.

2. Information may not be obtained under the FOIA when the agency holding the material has been enjoined from disclosing it by a federal district court. The Act gives federal district courts jurisdiction to order the production of "improperly" withheld agency records, but here the CPSC has not "improperly" withheld the accident reports. The Act's legislative history shows that Congress was largely concerned with the unjustified suppression of information by agency officials in the exercise of their discretion, but here the CPSC had no discretion to exercise, since its sole basis for not releasing the documents was the injunction issued by the Federal District Court in Delaware. The CPSC was required to obey the injunction out of respect for judicial process, and there is nothing in the legislative history to suggest that Congress intended to require an agency to commit contempt of court in order to release documents. Pp. 384 387.

192 U.S.App.D.C. 93, 590 F.2d 1209, reversed. MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the issue whether information may be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C.

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§ 552, when the agency holding the material has been enjoined from disclosing it by a federal district court.

I

In March, 1974, respondent Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced that it would hold a public hearing to investigate hazards in the operation of television receivers and to consider the need for safety standards for televisions. 39 Fed.Reg. 10929. In the notice, the CPSC [100 S.Ct. 1197] requested from television manufacturers certain information on television-related accidents. After reviewing the material voluntarily submitted, the CPSC, through orders, 15 U.S.C. § 2076(b)(1), and subpoenas, 15 U.S.C. § 2076(b)(3), obtained from the manufacturers, including petitioners, various accident reports. Claims of confidentiality accompanied most of the reports.

Respondents Consumers Union of the United States, Inc., and Public Citizen's Health Research Group (the requesters) sought disclosure of the accident reports from the CPSC under the Freedom of Information Act. The requesters were given access only to those documents for which no claim of confidentiality had been made by the manufacturers. As for the rest, the CPSC gave the manufacturers an opportunity to substantiate their claims of confidentiality. The requesters agreed to wait until mid-March, 1975, for the CPSC's determination of the availability of those allegedly confidential documents.

In March, 1975, the CPSC informed the requesters and the manufacturers that the documents sought did not fall within any of the exemptions of the Freedom of Information Act, and that, even if disclosure was not mandated by that Act, the CPSC would exercise its discretion to release the material on May 1, 1975. Upon receiving the notice, petitioners filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware

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and three other Federal District Courts,1 seeking to enjoin disclosure of the allegedly confidential reports. Petitioners contended that release of the information was prohibited by § 6 of the Consumer Product Safety Act, 15 U.S.C. § 2055, by exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act,2 and by the Trade Secrets Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1905. Petitioners sought temporary restraining orders in all of the actions, and the CPSC consented to such orders in at least some of the cases. Subsequently, the manufacturers' individual actions were consolidated in the District of Delaware, and that court issued a series of temporary restraining orders. Finally, in October, 1975, the Delaware District Court entered a preliminary injunction prohibiting release of the documents pending trial. GTE Sylvania Inc. v. Consumer Product Safety Comm'n, 404 F.Supp. 352 (1975).

The requesters did not seek to intervene in the Delaware action, nor did petitioners or the CPSC attempt to have the requesters joined. Instead, on May 5, 1975, the requesters filed the instant action in Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking release of the accident reports under the Freedom of Information Act. Named as defendants in that suit were the CPSC, its Chairman, Commissioners,

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and Secretary; and all of the petitioners. In September, 1975, while the motion for a preliminary injunction was still pending in Delaware, the District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the requesters' complaint. The court observed that the CPSC had determined that the reports should be disclosed and had assured the court on the public record that disclosure would be made as soon as the agency was not enjoined from doing so. The court concluded that there was no Art. III case or controversy between the plaintiffs and the federal defendants, and therefore no jurisdiction. [100 S.Ct. 1198] It also held that the complaint failed to state a claim against petitioners upon which relief could be granted, since they no longer possessed the records sought by the requesters. Nor could petitioners be subject to suit under the compulsory joinder provision of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19(a), since that Rule is predicated on the preexistence of federal jurisdiction over the cause of action, which was not present here. Consumers Union of United States, Inc. v. Consumer Product Safety Comm'n, 400 F.Supp. 848 (DC 1975).

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed. Consumers Union of United States, Inc. v. Consumer Product Safety Comm'n, 182 U.S. App D.C. 351, 561 F.2d 349 (1977). That court concluded that there was a case or controversy between the plaintiffs and the CPSC on "the threshold question of the scope and effect of the proceedings in Delaware." Id. at 356, 561 F.2d at 354. In addition, the CPSC's conduct of the Delaware litigation was "not easily reconcilable with its ostensible acceptance of [the requesters'] argument that the requested documents should be disclosed." Id. at 357, 561 F.2d at 355.3 The Court of Appeals held that the preliminary injunction

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issued by the Delaware court did not foreclose the requesters' suit under the Freedom of Information Act. That injunction did not resolve the merits of the claim, but instead was merely pendente lite relief. Thus, the order could not bar the Freedom of Information Act suit in the District of Columbia, although it would weigh in the decision as to which of the two suits should be stayed pending the outcome of the other. The court concluded, however, that such balancing was not required, because the Delaware court had entered an order "closing out" that case without further action.4 The Delaware action was effectively dismissed, and therefore the preliminary injunction was "dead," and did not bar the Freedom of Information Act suit.5 In addition, the CPSC's efforts in the Delaware action, which the court below considered "less than vigilant," and the resulting absence of full representation of the prodisclosure...

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