intimate details, some of which could be highly embarrassing, because disclosure may cause an individual to lose friends who for one reason or another might be prejudiced by this information. Disclosure may also cause a claimant to lose employment opportunities, because a prospective employer, having access to the intimate details of the claimant's medical and employment history, may decline to offer employment, or offer it only at a reduced salary or in a lower position.
3. Public Interest.
Plaintiffs assert that there is a strong public interest in disclosure of the requested files. This strong interest, plaintiffs argue, is based on the need for monitoring the operation of the FECA, a costly public program. Close public scrutiny of the administration of this program, they claim, will be possible only through disclosure of these files.
Plaintiffs further assert that past instances of abuse in the administration of the FECA underscore the need for disclosure. Plaintiffs base their allegations of abuse on reports by the House Subcommittee on the Departments of Labor and Health, Education, and Welfare; the Comptroller General; and the Department of Labor. These reports demonstrate, according to plaintiffs, that many claims paid under the FECA are unsubstantiated and that an inordinately high number of OWCP employees receive benefits under the FECA.
Plaintiffs cite Columbia Packing Co. v. United States Department of Agriculture, 563 F.2d 495 (1st Cir. 1977), in support of their public interest argument. Plaintiffs maintain that in Columbia Packing the court recognized a significant public interest in disclosure where allegations of official abuse or misconduct are involved.
Id. at 499-50.
In Columbia Packing, plaintiff company, which had been convicted on several counts of bribing federal meat inspection officials, sought to obtain under the FOIA the personnel and medical files of those officials. The court of appeals recognized a legitimate public interest in the officials, who were convicted of taking bribes and whose illegal activities were widespread and extensively publicized. The court then weighed this public interest against the privacy interests at stake in the two types of files, and concluded that the medical files were exempt from disclosure, but that personnel files should be disclosed.
The present action may readily be distinguished from those aspects of Columbia Packing that are relied on by plaintiffs. In Columbia Packing the court observed that ordinarily the individual careers of public servants are of small general interest, but that the meat inspection officials' involvement in bribery and their resulting convictions created a legitimate public interest in their careers. In this case, in contrast to the officials in Columbia Packing, the subjects of the requested files have neither been accused nor convicted of any criminal activity. Indeed, plaintiffs state only that there are an inordinately high number of OWCP employees making claims under the FECA. Such a statement, without more, is insufficient to create a strong public interest in these files.
Having rejected plaintiffs' suggestion that there is a strong public interest in disclosure of these files, the Court turns to assess the public interest in disclosure. Plaintiffs' only asserted public interest purpose exposing abuses in the administration of the FECA depends for its fulfillment on two of plaintiffs' own assumptions. First, plaintiffs assume that many OWCP-employed claimants are receiving improper benefits under the FECA. Second, plaintiffs assume that by examining the requested files they will be able to discern which claimants are entitled to benefits and which are not. Because of the likelihood that no public interest will be served by disclosure of the requested files if either of these assumptions is invalid, and because of the absence of any concrete evidence of wrongdoing by the OWCP-employed claimants, the Court can only conclude that the public interest in disclosure is speculative.
4. Balancing the Interests.
Having concluded that disclosure of the requested files would result in a serious invasion of privacy and that the public interest to be served by disclosure is speculative, the Court must now balance these interests. Given its previous conclusions, the Court holds that the invasion of privacy outweighs the speculative interest the public may have in disclosure and therefore that disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
B. The Privacy Act.
The Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a (1976), needs to be considered only briefly, for it has no effect on the present action. Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. General Services Administration, 180 U.S.App.D.C. 202, 207, 553 F.2d 1378, 1383, Cert. denied, 434 U.S. 826, 98 S. Ct. 74, 54 L. Ed. 2d 84 (1977). The Privacy Act prohibits the disclosure of any kind of retrievable information about an individual in the government's files. 5 U.S.C. § 552a(a)(5) (1976). It does, however, provide that an agency may disclose such information without obtaining the individual's consent if disclosure would be required under the FOIA. Id. § 552a(b)(2). The net effect of these provisions is to permit disclosure where the FOIA requires it, but to prohibit disclosure where the FOIA allows the agency to refuse to disclose. Thus, as applied to the present case, the Privacy Act prohibits defendants from disclosing any workers' compensation file in the absence of an individual's consent.
For the reasons set forth above, the Court concludes that plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment must be denied and defendants' motion for summary judgment must be granted.