The opinion of the court was delivered by: GREENE
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.
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.
737 F.2d at 92. The Court notes that the Inspector General's Office did not release the investigatory report to Carter until after it had completed its investigation. Accordingly, there was no risk that ongoing or future investigations and enforcement proceedings concerning this matter would be impaired as a result of the disclosure.
Upon balancing these competing interests, the Court concludes that whatever legitimate privacy interests plaintiff may have had in keeping the report secret, they were clearly outweighed by the public's interest in disclosure. To begin with, the privacy interests of plaintiff, in his capacity as a federal employee, are diminished due to the public interest in knowing how public employees are performing their jobs -- "in order to hold the governors accountable to the governed". Stern v. FBI, supra, 737 F.2d at 92.
This is particularly true where, as here, the federal employee in question holds a high level position -- i.e., plaintiff was the head of a major medical facility with a multi-million dollar budget.
Furthermore, this is not a case where plaintiff was associated unwarrantedly with wrongdoing. While plaintiff continues to protest his innocence of any criminal wrongdoing,
he has never denied the essential facts underlying the allegations made by Carter which were investigated by the Inspector General's Office. In fact, the VA found that plaintiff had ...