Corporations Have No Personal Privacy Interests Says U.S. Supreme Court

Matt Lonsdale is a JD candidate at Dalhousie University.

In a ruling heavy with statutory interpretation, the U.S. Supreme Court held on March 1st that for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, corporations have no “personal” privacy interests that would allow them to qualify for exceptions to the mandatory disclosure rules of the Act. AT&T, the plaintiff in the case, sought a ruling that since in legal usage the noun “person” includes entities such as corporations, the adjective “personal” should be similarly interpreted and an exception which protected individual’s personal privacy interests should apply to them. The court was not convinced.

The documents in question were created in the course of a 2005 investigation by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau into AT&T’s billing practices during their involvement in the E-Rate program, an attempt to increase libraries and schools access to information services. AT&T provided to the Bureau “various documents, including responses to interrogatories, invoices, emails with pricing and billing information, names and job descriptions of employees involved, and AT&T’s assessment of whether those employees had violated the company’s code of conduct”. These documents became the subject several months later of a request under §552(a) of the Act for information about the investigation by CompTel, an industry trade association.

§552(7)(b)(C) of the Act provides that “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes” do not have to be disclosed if they “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”. The Bureau decided that the disclosure of documents that included the personal information of named individuals would violate those individual’s personal privacy and withheld them on that basis. However, this exception was not applied to documents that only included information about AT&T itself. Documents that revealed AT&T’s trade secrets could be withheld pursuant to another exception, but since as a corporation AT&T had no “personal” privacy interests, they could not rely on §552(7)(b)(C) to suppress all documents pertaining to them. AT&T sought judicial review of the Bureau’s decision.

AT&T’s argument that §552 should be seen as recognizing the privacy interests of corporations was unanimously rejected by the court. While “person” is defined by statute to include corporations, “personal” is not, and so the court was required to give the term its ordinary meaning. In common usage, “personal” is not an adjective that is applied to corporations. Furthermore, the term was used elsewhere in the Act in exceptions clearly intended to apply only to individuals. This could be contrasted with exceptions that were obviously intended to apply to corporations and which used terms such as “trade secrets”.