32 CFR 701.45 - Fee assessment.
(a) Fees may not be used to discourage requesters, and to this end, FOIA fees are limited to standard charges for direct document search, review (in the case of commercial requesters) and duplication.
(b) In order to be as responsive as possible to FOIA requests while minimizing unwarranted costs to the taxpayer, DON activities shall analyze each request to determine the category of the requester. If the activity's determination regarding the category of the requester is different than that claimed by the requester, the activity shall:
(1) Notify the requester to provide additional justification to warrant the category claimed, and that a search for responsive records will not be initiated until agreement has been attained relative to the category of the requester. Absent further category justification from the requester, and within a reasonable period of time (i.e., 30 calendar days), the DON activity shall render a final category determination, and notify the requester of such determination, to include normal administrative appeal rights of the determination.
(2) Advise the requester that, notwithstanding any appeal, a search for responsive records will not be initiated until the requester indicates a willingness to pay assessable costs appropriate for the category determined by the activity.
(c) Estimate of fees. DON activities must be prepared to provide an estimate of assessable fees if desired by the requester. While it is recognized that search situations will vary among activities, and that an estimate is often difficult to obtain prior to an actual search, requesters who desire estimates are entitled to such before committing to a willingness to pay. Should the activity's actual costs exceed the amount of the estimate or the amount agreed to by the requester, the amount in excess of the estimate or the requester's agreed amount shall not be charged without the requester's agreement.
(d) Advance payment of fees. DON activities may not require advance payment of any fee (i.e., before work is commenced or continued on a request) unless the requester has failed to pay fees in a timely fashion (i.e., 30 calendar days from the date of the assessed billing in writing), or the activity has determined that the fee will exceed $250.00.
(e) When a DON activity estimates or determines that allowable charges that a requester may be required to pay are likely to exceed $250.00, the activity shall notify the requester of the likely cost and obtain satisfactory assurance of full payment where the requester has a history of prompt payments, or require an advance payment of an amount up to the full estimated charges in the case of requesters with no payment history.
(f) Where a requester has previously failed to pay a fee charged in a timely fashion (i.e., within 30 calendar days from the date of the billing), the DON activity may require the requester to pay the full amount owed, plus any applicable interest, or demonstrate that he or she has paid the fee, and to make an advance payment of the full amount of the estimated fee before the DON activity begins to process a new or pending request from the requester. Interest will be at the rate prescribed by 31 U.S.C. 3737 and confirmed with respective finance and accounting offices.
(g) After all the work is completed on a request, and the documents are ready for release, DON activities may require payment before forwarding the documents, particularly for those requesters who have no payment history, or for those requesters who have failed to previously pay a fee in a timely fashion (i.e., within 30 calendar days from the date of the billing).
(h) DON activities may charge for time spent searching for records, even if that search fails to locate records responsive to the request. DON activities may also charge search and review (in the case of commercial requesters) time if records located are determined to be exempt from disclosure. In practice, if the DON activity estimates that search charges are likely to exceed $25.00, it shall notify the requester of the estimated amount of fees, unless the requester has indicated in advance his or her willingness to pay fees as high as those anticipated. Such a notice shall offer the requester the opportunity to confer with activity personnel with the object of reformulating the request to meet his or her needs at a lower cost.