(a) Authorization to set FOIA fees. The Chief Financial Officer is delegated authority to promulgate regulations providing for a uniform fee schedule applicable to all components of the USDA regarding requests for records under this subpart. The regulations providing for a uniform fee schedule are found in appendix A of this subpart.
(b) In general. Components will charge for processing requests under the FOIA in accordance with the provisions of appendix A of this subpart and the Uniform Freedom of Information Act Fee Schedule and Guidelines published by the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB Fee Guidelines”).
(c) Guidance for lowering FOIA fees. Components will ensure that searches, review, and duplication are conducted in the most efficient and least expensive manner practicable.
(d) Communicating with requesters on fee issues. In order to resolve any fee issues that arise under this subpart, a component may contact a requester for additional information.
(e) Notifying requesters of estimated fees. When a component determines or estimates that the processing of a FOIA request will incur chargeable FOIA fees, in accordance with appendix A of this subpart and the OMB Fee Guidelines, the component will notify the requester in writing of the actual or estimated amount of the fees, including a breakdown of the fees for search, review, or duplication, unless the requester has indicated a willingness to pay fees as high as those anticipated.
(f) Requester commitment to pay estimated fees. In cases in which a requester has been notified that the processing of his or her request will incur chargeable FOIA fees, the component providing such notification will not begin processing the request until the requester commits in writing to pay the actual or estimated total fee, or designates the amount of fees that he or she is willing to pay, or in the case of a requester who has not yet been provided with his or her statutory entitlements, designates that he or she seeks only that which can be provided by these statutory entitlements. The requester must provide the commitment or designation in writing, and must, when applicable, designate an exact dollar amount he or she is willing to pay.
(g) Tolling of request for fee issues. If the requester has indicated a willingness to pay some designated amount of fees, but the component estimates that the total fee will exceed that amount, the component will toll the processing of the request when it notifies the requester of the estimated fees in excess of the amount the requester is willing to pay. Once the requester responds, the time to respond will resume from where it was at the date of the notification.
(h) Assisting requesters wishing to lower fees. Components will make available their FOIA Public Liaison or other FOIA professional to assist any requester in reformulating a request to meet the requester's needs at a lower cost.
(i) Timing of Bills for Collection. Except in instances where advance payment is required, or where requesters have previously failed to pay a properly charged FOIA fee within 30 calendar days of the billing date, components may issue Bills for Collection for FOIA fees owed at the same time that they issue their responses to FOIA requests.
(j) Advance payment of FOIA fees when estimated fees exceed $250.00. When a component determines or estimates that a total fee to be charged for the processing of a FOIA request is likely to exceed $250.00, it may require the requester to make an advance payment up to the amount of the entire anticipated fee before beginning to process the request. However, a component may elect to process a request prior to collecting fees exceeding $250.00 when it receives a satisfactory assurance of full payment from a requester with a history of prompt payment.
(k) Special services. For services not covered by the FOIA or by appendix A of this subpart, as described in § 1.10, components may set their own fees in accordance with applicable law. Although components are not required to provide special services, such as providing multiple copies of the same record, or sending records by means other than first class mail, if a component chooses to do so as a matter of administrative discretion, the direct costs of these services will be charged.
(l) Aggregating requests. When a component reasonably believes that a requester or a group of requesters acting in concert is attempting to divide a single request into a series of requests for the purpose of avoiding fees, the component may aggregate those requests and charge accordingly. Components may presume that multiple requests of this type made within a 30 calendar day period have been made in order to avoid fees. For requests separated by a longer period, components will aggregate them only where there is a reasonable basis for determining that aggregation is warranted in view of all the circumstances involves. Multiple requests involving unrelated matters will not be aggregated for fee purposes.
(m) Payment of FOIA fees. Requesters must pay FOIA fees by check or money order made payable to the Treasury of the United States. Components are not required to accept payments in installments.
(n) Failure to pay properly charged fees. When a requester has previously failed to pay a properly charged FOIA fee to any component within 30 calendar days of the billing date, a component may require that the requester pay the full amount due, plus any applicable interest on that prior request, and the component may require that the requester make an advance payment of the full amount of any anticipated fee before the component begins to process a new request or continues to process a pending request or any pending appeal. Where a component has a reasonable basis to believe that a requester has misrepresented the requester's identity in order to avoid paying outstanding fees, it may require that the requester provide proof of identity.
(o) Restrictions on charging fees.
(1) If a component fails to comply with the statutory time limits in which to respond to a request, as provided in § 1.6(b), and if unusual circumstances, as that term is defined by the FOIA, apply to the processing of the request, as discussed in § 1.6(d), it may not charge search fees for the processing of the request, or duplication fees for the processing of the request if the requester is classified as an educational institution requester, a noncommercial scientific institution requester, or a representative of the news media, as defined in appendix A of this subpart, unless:
(i) The component notifies the requester, in writing, within the statutory 20-working day time period, that unusual circumstances, as that term is defined by the FOIA, apply to the processing of the request;
(ii) More than 5,000 pages are necessary to respond to the request; and
(iii) The component has discussed with the requester by means of written mail, electronic mail, or by telephone (or has made not less than three good-faith attempts to do so) how the requester could effectively limit the scope of the request.
(2) If a court has determined that exceptional circumstances exist, as defined by the FOIA, a failure to comply with the time limits shall be excused for the length of time provided by the court order.
(p) Waivers of chargeable fees.
(1) In general. Records responsive to a request will be furnished without charge or at a reduced rate below that established in Table 1 of appendix A of this subpart, where a component determines, based on available evidence, that the requester has demonstrated that:
(i) Disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest as defined in paragraph (p)(3) of this section, because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government, and;
(ii) Disclosure of the information is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester as defined in paragraph (p)(4) of this section.
(2) Adjudication of fee waivers. Each fee waiver request is judged on its own merit.
(3) Factors for consideration of public interest. In deciding whether disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government, components will consider all four of the following factors:
(i) The subject of the request must concern identifiable operations or activities of the Federal government, with a connection that is direct and clear, not remote or attenuated.
(ii) Disclosure of the requested records must be meaningfully informative about government operations or activities to be “likely to contribute” to an increased public understanding of those operations or activities. The disclosure of information that already is in the public domain, in either the same or a substantially identical form, would not contribute to such understanding where nothing new would be added to the public's understanding.
(iii) The disclosure must contribute to the understanding of a reasonably broad audience of persons interested in the subject, as opposed to the requester's individual understanding. A requester's expertise in the subject area as well as his or her ability and intention to effectively convey information to the public will be considered. It will be presumed that a representative of the news media, as defined in appendix A of this subpart, will satisfy this consideration.
(iv) The public's understanding of the subject in question must be enhanced by the disclosure to a significant degree. However, components will not make value judgments about whether the information at issue is “important” enough to be made public.
(4) Factors for consideration of commercial interest. In deciding whether disclosure of the requested information is in the requester's commercial interest, components will consider the following two factors:
(i) Components will identify any commercial interest of the requester, as defined in appendix A of this subpart. Requesters may be given an opportunity to provide explanatory information regarding this consideration.
(ii) A waiver or reduction of fees is justified where the public interest is greater than any identified commercial interest in disclosure. Components ordinarily will presume that where a news media requester has satisfied the public interest standard, the public interest will be the interest primarily served by disclosure to that requester. Disclosure to data brokers or others who merely compile and market government information for direct economic return will not be presumed to primarily serve the public interest.
(5) Partial fee waivers. Where only some of the records to be released satisfy the requirements for a waiver of fees, a waiver will be granted for those records only.
(6) Timing of requests for fee waivers. Requests for a waiver or reduction of fees should be made when the request is first submitted to the component and should address the criteria referenced in paragraph (p)(3) of this section. A requester may submit a fee waiver request later so long as the underlying record request is pending or on administrative appeal. When a requester who has committed to pay fees subsequently asks for a waiver of those fees and that waiver is denied, the requester will be required to pay any costs incurred up to the date the fee waiver request was received.