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United States v. Weber Aircraft Corp., 465 U.S. 792 (1984)

United States v. Weber Aircraft Corp.

No. 82-1616

Argued January 11, 1984

Decided March 20, 1984

465 U.S. 792


When the engine of an Air Force aircraft failed in flight, the pilot was severely injured when he ejected from the plane. After Air Force collateral and safety investigations of the incident had been completed, the pilot filed a damages action against respondents as the entities responsible for the design and manufacture of the plane's ejection equipment. Respondents sought pretrial discovery of documents containing confidential unsworn statements made during the safety investigation by the pilot and the airman who had rigged and maintained the pilot's parachute equipment. But such discovery was prevented by Machin v. Zukert, 114 U.S.App.D.C. 335, 316 F.2d 336, cert. denied, 375 U.S. 896, which held that confidential statements made to air crash safety investigators are privileged with respect to pretrial discovery. Respondents then filed requests for the statements under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and, when the Air Force refused production, commenced an action in Federal District Court, which held that the statements were protected from disclosure by Exemption 5 of the FOIA, which exempts from disclosure

"inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency."

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, although the requested documents were "intra-agency memorandums" within the meaning of Exemption 5 and were protected from civil discovery under the Machin privilege, the statutory phrase "would not be available by law" did not encompass every civil discovery privilege, but rather reached only those privileges explicitly recognized in the FOIA's legislative history, which the court read as not extending to the Machin privilege.

Held: The statements in question are protected from disclosure by Exemption 5. The Exemption's plain language, as construed by this Court's prior decisions, is sufficient to resolve the question presented. The statements are unquestionably "intra-agency memorandums or letters" within the meaning of the Exemption, and, since the Machin privilege normally protects them from civil discovery, they "would not be available by law to a party other than [the Air Force] in litigation with [the Air Force]." Exemption 5's scope is not limited to privileges

Page 465 U. S. 793

explicitly identified by Congress in the FOIA's legislative history. To hold that material that is normally privileged can be obtained through the FOIA would create an anomaly in that the FOIA could be used to supplement civil discovery. And Exemption 5's legislative history does not contain the kind of compelling evidence of congressional intent that would necessitate looking beyond the plain statutory language, but rather indicates that Congress intended to incorporate governmental privileges analogous to the Machin privilege. Pp. 465 U. S. 798-804.

688 F.2d 638, reversed. STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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