Plaintiff, the former Director of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, brought this action against the Veterans Administration (VA) alleging that its disclosure of information pursuant to a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, violated his statutory rights under the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, and severely damaged his reputation. Plaintiff seeks $100,000 in damages for loss to his reputation, mental pain and suffering, and other injuries. The VA has filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment.
For the reasons stated below, the motion will be granted and this action will be dismissed.
The material facts are not in dispute. An article appearing in the February 1983 issue of Truth Unity, the newsletter of Local 2031 of the American Federation of Government Employees, alleged that plaintiff, who was then Director of the VA Medical Center, had used a government vehicle for private purposes, that while he was doing so, he was involved in an accident, and that he used government funds to repair the damages to the other driver's car. Mr. Lonnie Carter, the Local's President and the author of the article, subsequently complained to the Inspector General's Office of the VA, repeating the allegations in his article that plaintiff had misused government property and misappropriated public funds, and volunteering to provide the VA with additional information.
The Inspector General's Office conducted an investigation into these allegations. Although the Office declined to bring criminal charges against plaintiff, it did reprimand plaintiff for violating certain regulations governing the use of government property. During the pendency of the VA investigation, Carter made a request pursuant to the FOIA for records relating to its investigation of plaintiff. The Inspector General's Office, after completing its investigation and upon consulting with other VA officials, released a partially redacted copy of its report to Carter.
The information in this report essentially confirmed the information that Carter himself had provided to the agency.
Section 552a(b)(2) of the Privacy Act prohibits an agency from disclosing any record which is contained in a system of records without the prior written consent of the individual to whom it pertains "unless disclosure of the record would be . . . required under section 552 of this title." The effect of this section is to permit an agency to disclose records where FOIA requires it, but to prohibit such disclosure where a specific FOIA exemption allows the agency to withhold the information. See Plain Dealer Publishing Co. v. United States Department of Labor, 471 F. Supp. 1023, 1031 (D.D.C. 1979). Here, plaintiff maintains that the information contained in the VA investigatory report was exempt under 7(C) of the FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(C), which protects investigatory records, the disclosure of which would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
The VA, in fact, considered whether the release of the Inspector General's investigatory report would result in an unwarranted invasion of plaintiff's personal privacy, but determined that it would not. On that basis, it concluded that it was required to release the report under FOIA. The Court agrees and thus concludes that the VA has not violated plaintiff's rights under the Privacy Act.
The central purpose of the FOIA is to increase the public's access to information in the possession of the federal government. Congress determined that in certain instances disclosure of some government records would be so intrusive -- either to private parties or to certain important government functions -- that releasing them under the FOIA would be inappropriate. Exemptions 6 and 7(C), which provide protection for personal privacy interests, reflect one of those instances. However, the existence of a privacy interest in certain documents does not automatically protect those documents from disclosure. Rather, the Court, in determining whether exemption 6 or exemption 7(C) applies in a particular case, must balance the plaintiff's interest in privacy against the public interest in disclosure.
The first step in this balancing process is to identify the nature and magnitude of the various interests involved. On the one side, plaintiff has at least a minimal privacy interest in his employment history and job performance evaluations. See Stern v. FBI, 237 U.S. App. D.C. 302, 737 F.2d 84, 91 (D.C. Cir. 1984), and cases cited therein. In the instant case, the investigatory record at issue does not contain diverse bits and pieces of information concerning plaintiff unrelated to the subject of the report, and its release would not have disclosed intimate details or other aspects of plaintiff's personal life. Instead, the report concerns an investigation into specific allegations of misconduct. Thus, the privacy interests at stake are limited to whatever embarrassment or reputational injury plaintiff might suffer as a result of being associated unwarrantedly with the alleged wrongdoing which is the subject of the report.
See Stern v. FBI, supra, 737 F.2d at 91-92.
On the other side of the balance, is the public's interest in knowing what public servants may be involved in wrongdoing. In addition, as the court in Stern v. FBI, supra, recognized, the public has an interest in:
knowing that a government investigation itself is comprehensive, that the report of an investigation released publicly is accurate, that any disciplinary measures imposed are adequate, and that those who are accountable are dealt with in an appropriate manner.