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Fourth Circuit Upholds Prisoner Exclusion in Virginia FOIA

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of excluding prisoners from the right to obtain public records under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Va. Code Ann. §§ 2.2-3700 to 3704 (2005).

Joseph M. Giarratano, a Virginia state prisoner, filed a FOIA request with the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) for copies of treatment protocols for prisoners with Hepatitis C, to aid him in potential litigation related to his medical care. The request was denied because prisoners are specifically excluded from Virginia’s FOIA.

Giarratano then filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court, alleging that the statutory exclusion of prisoners from the FOIA violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, both facially and as applied, and violated the First Amendment as applied. The U.S. District Court granted the VDOC’s motion to dismiss and Giarratano appealed.

On appeal, Giarratano claimed that the exclusion of prisoners from Virginia’s FOIA violated the Equal Protection clause unless the court determined that prisoners were more prone to filing frivolous FOIA requests than the general public. He also claimed that the exclusion violated the Equal Protection clause as applied to him, as he had no history of filing frivolous FOIA requests and was willing to pay the costs associated with his request.

The Fourth Circuit held that a restrictive classification in a statute such as the FOIA has a strong presumption of validity so long as it is related to any legitimate state interest.
Under the applicable standard, the plaintiff bears the burden of negating “every conceivable basis which might support” the restriction. Merely claiming that there is no legitimate state interest, as Giarratano did, is conclusory and insufficient to overcome the presumption of validity. Giarratano might have been able to disprove some of the “state interests” by, for example, submitting statistics to the district court showing that prisoners were not more prone to filing frivolous FOIA requests than the general public, but he failed to do so.

Even Giarratano’s assertion that he had no history of filing frivolous FOIA requests and was willing to pay the costs of his request did not state a plausible claim that the FOIA exclusion denied him equal protection. Where some reasonable basis exists, a restrictive classification “does not offend the Constitution simply because ... [it] ‘is not made with mathematical nicety or because in practice it results in some inequality.’” The appellate court found that Giarratano’s situation was the result of the general restriction on freedoms inherent in lawful incarceration and the inequality inherent in “imperfect” laws.

Finally, the Court of Appeals ruled that the denial of Giarratano’s FOIA request for Hepatitis C treatment protocols did not hinder his ability to file a lawsuit alleging inadequate medical treatment for Hepatitis C. Thus, his First Amendment access-to-the-courts claim also failed, and the Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s dismissal of his lawsuit. See: Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298 (4th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Giarratano v. Johnson