FTC v. Grolier, Inc. - 462 U.S. 19 (1983)
U.S. Supreme Court
FTC v. Grolier, Inc., 462 U.S. 19 (1983)
Federal Trade Commission v. Grolier, Inc.
Argued March 29, 1983
Decided June 6, 1983
462 U.S. 19
Exemption 5 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exempts from disclosure under the Act "inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party . . . in litigation with the agency." Petitioner Federal Trade Commission (FTC) conducted an investigation of a subsidiary of respondent in connection with a civil penalty action against the subsidiary in Federal District Court filed by the Department of Justice. The action was later dismissed with prejudice when the Government declined to comply with a discovery order. Thereafter, respondent filed a request with the FTC for disclosure of certain documents concerning the investigation of the subsidiary, but the FTC denied the request on the ground that the documents were exempt from disclosure under Exemption 5. Respondent then brought suit in Federal District Court to compel release of the documents. The District Court held that the documents were exempt from disclosure under Exemption 5 as, inter alia, attorney work product. The Court of Appeals held that the documents generated during the action against the subsidiary could not be withheld on the basis of the work product rule unless the FTC could show that "litigation related to the terminated action exists or potentially exists." The court reasoned that the work product rule encompassed by Exemption 5 was coextensive with the work product privilege under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and that a requirement that documents must be disclosed in the absence of the existence or potential existence of related litigation best comported with the fact that the work product privilege is a qualified one.
Held: Under Exemption 5, attorney work product is exempt from mandatory disclosure without regard to the status of the litigation for which it was prepared. By its own terms, Exemption 5 requires reference to whether discovery would normally be required during litigation with the agency. Under a literal reading of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(3), the work product of agency attorneys would not be subject to discovery in subsequent litigation unless there was a showing of need, and thus would fall within the scope of Exemption 5. But regardless of how Rule 26(b)(3) is construed, the Court of Appeals erred in construing Exemption 5 to protect work product material only if related litigation
exists or potentially exists. The test under Exemption 5 is whether the documents would be "routinely" or "normally" disclosed upon a showing of relevance. The Court of Appeals' determination that its rule concerning related litigation best comported with the qualified nature of the work product rule is irrelevant in the FOIA context. Whether its immunity from discovery is absolute or qualified, a protected document cannot be said to be subject to "routine" disclosure. Work product materials are immune from discovery unless the one seeking discovery can show substantial need in connection with subsequent litigation. Such materials are thus not "routinely" or "normally" available to parties in litigation, and hence are exempt under Exemption 5. This result, by establishing a discrete category of exempt information, implements the FOIA's purpose to provide "workable" rules. Pp. 462 U. S. 23-28.
217 U.S.App.D.C. 47, 671 F.2d 553, reversed.
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and MARSHALL, POWELL, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined,post, p. 462 U. S. 28.