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Milner v. Dep't of the Navy - 562 U.S. 562, 131 S. Ct. 1259 (2011)


The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C.S. § 552, requires federal agencies to make Government records available to the public, subject to nine exemptions for specific categories of material. Exemption 2 of FOIA protects from disclosure material that is related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency. 5 U.S.C.S. § 552(b)(2).


The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to make Government records available to the public, subject to nine exemptions. This case concerns Exemption 2, which protects from disclosure material “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.” This provision replaced an Administrative Procedure Act (APA) exemption for “any matter relating solely to the internal management of an agency,” 5 U.S.C.S. § 1002 (1964 ed.). Congress believed that the “sweep” of the phrase “internal management” had led to excessive withholding, and drafted Exemption 2 “to have a narrower reach.” 

In Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 362-363, 96 S. Ct. 1592, 48 L. Ed. 2d 11 (1976), the United States Supreme Court found that Exemption 2 could not be invoked to withhold Air Force Academy honor and ethics hearing summaries. The exemption, the Court suggested, primarily targets material concerning employee relations or human resources. But the Court stated a possible caveat: That understanding of the provision's coverage governed “at least where the situation is not one where disclosure may risk circumvention of agency regulation.” The D. C. Circuit subsequently converted this caveat into a new definition of Exemption 2's scope, finding that the exemption also covered any “predominantly internal” materials whose disclosure would “significantly ris[k] circumvention of agency regulation or statutes.” Courts now use the term “Low 2” for human resources and employee relations records and “High 2" for records whose disclosure would risk circumvention of the law.

Petitioner Milner submitted FOIA requests for explosives data and maps used by respondent Department of the Navy (Navy or Government) in storing munitions at a naval base in Washington State. Stating that disclosure would threaten the security of the base and surrounding community, the Navy invoked Exemption 2 and refused to release the data. The District Court granted the Navy summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, relying on the High 2 interpretation. The United States Supreme Court granted Milner's petition for certiorari review.


Did exemption from disclosure, under Freedom of Information Act's Exemption 2 (5 U.S.C.S. § 552(b)(2)), of documents related solely to internal personnel rules and practices encompass only records relating to employee relations and human resources?




Exemption 2 used "personnel" in the exact same way as Exemption 6, § 552(b)(6). Exemption 2 did not reach the information at issue. These data and maps calculated and visually portrayed the magnitude of hypothetical detonations. By no stretch of imagination did they relate to "personnel rules and practices." They concerned the physical rules governing explosives, not the workplace rules governing sailors; they addressed the handling of dangerous materials, not the treatment of employees. Exemption 2's plain meaning covered human resources matters. Rejecting the "Low 2, High 2" distinction, the United States Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case, concluding that "High 2" was better labeled "Non 2." That the records requested assisted Navy personnel in storing munitions did not mean the data and maps related to "personnel rules and practices." Exemption 2, consistent with the plain meaning of the term "personnel rules and practices," encompassed only records relating to issues of employee relations and human resources. The explosives maps and data requested did not qualify for withholding under Exemption 2.

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