Federal FOIA in Virginia courts w/ Virginia firms

With the advent of the iPhone, the Droid and any number of other so-called smart phones, it seems almost quaint that the world teetered on the edge of chaos in 2006 when a patent case threatened to darken the screens of the then-revolutionary BlackBerry.

NTP, a Virginia-based company, told BlackBerry's maker, Research in Motion, that the BlackBerry's technology infringed on an NTP patent. A federal district court judge in Richmond agreed and imposed millions of dollars in fines against RIM and told them to stop selling BlackBerrys that infringed NTP's patent.

While the case was pending on appeal, the Justice Department got involved. It filed briefs supporting RIM, citing the detrimental effect on consumers who relied on their BlackBerrys.

Eventually, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to get involved, after the Department of Defense argued that an injunction against RIM would threaten national security, and after RIM announced it had developed workaround technology, the case settled for $612.5 million.

But that's not the end of it......

Prompted by NTP's FOIA request of DOJ documents related to the brief it filed in support of RIM, the Richmond law firm Hunton & Williams filed its own FOIA request for records related to a "common interest agreement" between RIM and DOJ.

The same federal district court granted DOJ's motion for summary judgment on access to all but three of the records Hunton sought.

Monday, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals ordered the case be returned to the district judge. But it wasn't a slam-dunk win for Hunton & Williams.

The majority opinion actually agreed that the records related to the agreement were confidential.

"Although FOIA establishes a broad policy of transparency, its commitment to that policy is not unlimited," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote. He said that if Hunton’s position were adopted -- that none of the communication between DOJ and RIM is confidential -- "its impact on the government’s ability to conduct complex and multi-faceted litigation would be staggering."

Judge M. Blane Michael, writing in dissent, said that "self-serving communications from outsiders . . . to DOJ to lobby it to file a statement of interest, are the very sort of communications that FOIA meant to expose to the light of day."

The case was remanded, though, to evaluate whether communications prior to the agreement's signing were also confidential and not subject to release under FOIA.

(Sources: Wikipedia, Law.com, 4th Circuit opinion)

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