BuzzFeed Sues Slew Of Federal Agencies For COVID-19 Docs

By Dave Simpson
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Law360 (March 13, 2020, 11:15 PM EDT) -- BuzzFeed Inc. and one of its reporters sued a slew of government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, alleging in D.C. federal court Friday that they're violating the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to hand over correspondences about COVID-19.

BuzzFeed and investigative reporter Jason Leopold claim in their complaint that on Feb. 12, they submitted FOIA requests with the CDC and DHS' Federal Emergency Management Agency, seeking a trove of documents related to COVID-19. But after numerous back-and-forths, the agencies have yet to produce the required documents, BuzzFeed said.

"After plaintiffs limited the scope of these requests in response to issues raised by the agencies, the agencies granted these requests expedited processing but have failed to issue determinations within the presumptive deadline for expedited requests," BuzzFeed said in its complaint.

The CDC was originally asked to return, among other things, all emails sent and received by the CDC director about the coronavirus, policy and legal guidelines it received related to the virus, and draft and final talking points about the virus, BuzzFeed said.

On Feb. 18, the CDC confirmed that it received the request but deemed it too broad, BuzzFeed said. BuzzFeed appealed and clarified the timeframe for which it was seeking the documents, according to the complaint.

On Feb. 20, the CDC rescinded its letter and said it would take on the search, BuzzFeed said. On Feb. 21, BuzzFeed limited its scope and timeframe, it said. On Feb. 25, the CDC granted BuzzFeed's request for an expedited search and sought an extension, BuzzFeed said.

On Feb. 26, BuzzFeed further narrowed its timeframe, it said.

"On February 28, 2020, CDC sent a letter to memorialize the scope of the request, given recent changes to date and search terms," BuzzFeed said. "As of the date of this filing, CDC has not issued a determination and has produced no records responsive to the request."

BuzzFeed initiated a very similar search with FEMA on Feb. 12 and went through a similar negotiation process, ultimately resulting in the same nonresponse, the company said.

The online publication is asking the court to order the agencies to conduct a reasonable search and produce the requested records.

The novel coronavirus began in Wuhan, China, in December and has since spread to 123 countries, according to the World Health Organization, which declared the virus a pandemic on March 11. The CDC has confirmed 1,600 cases in the U.S. as of Friday, although questions remain about the rate of testing for the virus.

Representatives for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

BuzzFeed is represented by Matthew V. Topic of Loevy & Loevy.

Counsel information for the agencies was not immediately known Friday.

The case is Leopold et al. v. Center For Disease Control et al., case number 1:20-cv-00722, in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.

--Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

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