38 CFR § 1.554 - Requirements for making requests.

§ 1.554 Requirements for making requests.

(a) Requests by letter and facsimile (fax). The FOIA request must be in writing and may be by letter or fax. To assist in processing, the request letter, envelope, or fax cover sheet of any FOIA request should be marked “Freedom of Information Act Request.” Information helpful for filing a request, such as a list of VA FOIA contacts, VA's FOIA Reference Guide, and the text of the FOIA, are available on VA's FOIA homepage on the internet. See § 1.552(a) for the pertinent internet address. VA has a decentralized FOIA system, meaning that each VA component, i.e., administrations and staff offices, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) medical centers, Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) regional offices, or offices located within the VA Central Office in Washington, DC (e.g., the Office of the Secretary), maintain their own FOIA processes and respond to FOIA requests directly. Accordingly, requesters must write directly to the FOIA Officer for the VA component that maintains the records. If requesting records from a particular medical facility, regional office, or Central Office component, the request should be sent to the FOIA Office at the address listed for that component. A legible return address must be included with the FOIA request; the requester may wish to include other contact information as well, such as a telephone number and email address. If the requester is not sure where to send the request, he or she should seek assistance from the FOIA Contact for the office believed to manage the programs whose records are being requested or, if these efforts fail, he or she should send the request to the Director, FOIA Service (005R1C), 810 Vermont Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20420, who will refer it for action to the FOIA contact at the appropriate component.

(b) Requests by email. VA accepts email FOIA requests. To assure prompt processing, email FOIA requests must be sent to official VA FOIA mailboxes established for the purpose of receiving FOIA requests. An email FOIA request that is sent to an individual VA employee's mailbox, or to any other entity, will not be considered a perfected FOIA request. Mailbox addresses designated to receive email FOIA requests are available on VA's FOIA homepage. See § 1.552(a) for the pertinent internet address.

(c) The content of a request. Whether submitting the request by letter, fax, or email, the following applies: If the requester is seeking records about himself or herself or to which a confidentiality statute applies (38 U.S.C. 5701, e.g.), the requester must comply with the verification of identity requirements set forth in § 1.577 of this part, which applies to requests for records maintained under the Privacy Act. If the requester is seeking records not covered by the Privacy Act, but which the requester believes may pertain to him or her, the requester may obtain greater access to the records by complying with the verification of identity requirements set forth in § 1.577 of this part, by providing the image of the requester's signature (such as an attachment that shows the requester's handwritten signature), or by submitting a notarized, signed statement affirming his or her identity or a declaration made in compliance with 28 U.S.C. 1746. The suggested language for a statement under 28 U.S.C. 1746 is included on VA's FOIA homepage; see § 1.552(a) for the pertinent internet address. If the requester is seeking records pertaining to another individual under the FOIA, whether by letter, fax, or email, the requester may obtain greater access to the records if he or she provides satisfactory authorization to act on behalf of the record subject to receive the records or by submitting proof that the record subject is deceased (e.g., a copy of a death certificate or an obituary). Each component has discretion to require that a requester supply additional information to verify that a record subject has consented to disclosure.

(d) Description of records sought.

(1) The requester must describe the records sought in enough detail to allow VA personnel to locate them with a reasonable amount of effort. To the extent possible, the requester should include specific information about each record sought, such as the date, title or name, author, recipient, and subject matter of the document. Generally, the more information the requester provides about the record sought, the more likely VA personnel will be able to locate any responsive records. Wide-ranging requests that lack specificity, or contain descriptions of very general subject matters, with no description of specific records, may be considered “not reasonably described” and thus not subject to further processing.

(2) Requests for voluminous amounts of records may be placed in a complex track of a multitrack processing system pursuant to § 1.556(b); such requests also may meet the criteria for “unusual circumstances,” which are processed in accordance with § 1.556(c) and may require more than 20 business days to process despite the agency's exercise of due diligence.

(3) If the FOIA Officer determines that the request does not reasonably describe the records sought, the FOIA Officer will tell the requester why the request is insufficient. The FOIA Officer will also provide an opportunity to discuss the request by documented telephonic communication or written correspondence in order to modify it to meet the requirements of this section.

(4) The time limit for VA to process the FOIA request will not start until the FOIA Officer determines that the requester has reasonably described the records sought in the FOIA request. If the FOIA Officer seeks additional clarification regarding the request and does not receive the requester's written response within 30 calendar days of the date of its communication with the requester, he or she will conclude that the requester is no longer interested in pursuing the request and will close VA's files on the request.

(e) Agreement to pay fees. The time limit for processing a FOIA request will be tolled while any fee issue is unresolved. Depending on the circumstances, the FOIA Officer will notify the requester of the following: That the FOIA Officer anticipates that the fees for processing the request will exceed the amount that the requester has stated a willingness to pay or will amount to more than $25.00 or the amount set by Office of Management and Budget fee guidelines, whichever is higher; whether the FOIA Officer is requiring the requester to agree in writing to pay the estimated fee; or whether advance payment of the fee is required prior to processing the request (i.e., if the estimated fee amount exceeds $250 or the requester previously has failed to pay a FOIA fee in a timely manner). If the FOIA Officer does not receive the requester's written response to the notice regarding any of these items within 10 business days of the date of the FOIA Officer's written communication with the requester, the FOIA Officer will close the request. If requesting a fee waiver under § 1.561, the requester nonetheless may state his or her willingness to pay a fee up to an identified amount in the event that the fee waiver is denied; this will allow the component to process the FOIA request while considering the fee waiver request. If the requester pays a fee in advance, and VA later determines that the requester overpaid or is entitled to a full or partial fee waiver, a refund will be made. (For more information on the collection of fees under the FOIA, see § 1.561.)

(f) The requester must meet all of the requirements of this section in order for the request to be perfected.

[76 FR 51893, Aug. 19, 2011, as amended at 84 FR 12125, Apr. 1, 2019]