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COVINGTON & BURLING v. FOOD & NUTRITION SERV. OF T

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA


June 11, 1990

COVINGTON & BURLING, Plaintiff,
v.
FOOD AND NUTRITION SERVICE OF the UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, Defendant

The opinion of the court was delivered by: HARRIS

STANLEY S. HARRIS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

 This Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the parties' replies, and the entire record.

 The underlying facts are as follows. Plaintiff represents the State of Utah in a matter relating to a food stamp quality control error-rate penalty that the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has levied against the State of Utah for federal fiscal year (FY) 1983. Presently Utah is contesting the penalty in an administrative review proceeding before the State Food Stamp Appeals Board of the United States Department of Agriculture.

 In the course of representing Utah in that proceeding, plaintiff requested documents which it felt were necessary to Utah's appeal. FNS, after a protracted series of interactions and requests, released some documents in full, released others in redacted form, and refused to release other documents under § 552(b)(5). Plaintiff brought this action claiming that FNS conducted an inadequate file search and that FNS is unlawfully withholding documents or parts of documents.

 Background

 The State of Utah participates in the Food Stamp Program (FSP). 7 U.S.C. § 2011 et seq. Under the FSP, states assume responsibility for certification of eligible individuals, for the issuance of coupons, and for the control and accountability thereof. 7 U.S.C. § 2020(a). States are eligible to receive 50 percent of all administrative costs involved in each state's operation of the FSP. 7 U.S.C. § 2025(a). However, the FSP also provides sanctions for states which operate the program inefficiently. FNS has the authority to sanction or reduce the state's funds if the state fails to meet certain quality control error rate goals. If the FNS determines that a state has failed to meet the quality standards, FNS must notify the state of its liability and give the state 30 days notice so that the state may seek a good cause waiver or a reduction of its liability. 7 C.F.R. § 275.25. Under 7 U.S.C. § 2025(d) and 7 C.F.R. § 275.23(e)(5), states may request that FNS waive penalty assessments for good cause. FNS may determine good cause based upon, among other factors, natural or civil disasters which adversely affect the FSP, significant caseload growth, changes in the federal or state FSP program which adversely impact upon the management of the FSP, and other circumstances beyond the control of the state. If FNS makes a determination, based on the criteria set forth in 7 C.F.R. § 275.25d(5), that good cause does not exist, it is to promptly issue a billing. See 7 C.F.R. § 275.25d(4)(i). If FNS determines that the state had good cause for not achieving its error rate goal, FNS is to reduce or eliminate the state's liability "as appropriate." 7 C.F.R. § 275.25d(5)(ii).

 FNS determined that Utah's error rate was too high, and thus notified Utah that it was subject to a reduction of its federally funded share of administrative costs for FY 1983. Utah asked FNS to waive its penalty. Utah claimed it was paralyzed by record floods, it experienced rapid caseload growth, and that dramatic changes were implemented in the FSP. It contended that because of these factors and the uncontrollable costs incurred as a result of food stamp recipients errors, Utah should not be held accountable for its unacceptable quality rating. After considering Utah's petition, FNS waived half of the penalty on the basis of caseload growth, but reasserted the legitimacy of the rest of the sanction.

 Utah requested administrative review of all aspects of the penalty before the State Food Stamp Appeals Board (Appeals Board). Proceedings before the Appeals Board are informal. It is not bound by the rules of civil procedure or by the adjudicatory requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act. 7 C.F.R. § 276.7(h)(1). The Appeals Board does not have authority to issue or enforce subpoenas or to compel document production. *fn1"

 In Appeals Board proceedings, FNS must submit all relevant and helpful documents compiled by FNS in support of its claim prior to the state's presentation of its case. 7 C.F.R. § 276.7(g)(2). Accordingly, Utah filed a motion asking the Appeals Board to compel FNS to include specific documents, including materials relating to the calculation of Utah's target rate, error rate, and sanction amount; correspondence and reports concerning Utah's management of the FSP; and information about FNS's policies and practices on good-cause waivers of penalties during the pertinent years. The Appeals Board instructed FNS to include the requested documents in its submission on the appeal. However, FNS declined to include the requested documents, and the Appeals Board notified plaintiff that it did not have the authority to compel FNS to produce the requested documents.

 Plaintiff then sought to obtain the information through a FOIA action. The Appeals Board granted plaintiff several extensions of time in which to file its appeal brief before proceeding. The proceeding had been set for mid-May. The case now before the Court is a result of the ongoing dispute between plaintiff and FNS as to the requested documents. It focuses on 108 documents. n2 All but 11 of those were released in a redacted form. The remaining 11 were not released at all. *fn3" n2 Without addressing in detail the interactions between plaintiff and FNS regarding the FOIA requests, the materials that FNS has withheld in part or in full challenged by plaintiffs are as follows: FOIA Request Description FNS Index 1 Penalty-amount documents 1-3 Discussion/Issue Papers (Defendant's category A) 4 Utah program waiver documents 4-28 Regional Office Recommendations Concerning Utah Requests for Waivers of Ongoing Program Requirements (Defendant's category C) 6 Caseload-growth methodology documents 29-34 Discussion/Issue Papers (Defendant's category A) 7 Good-cause waiver analyses 35-94 Good Cause/Liability Analyses (Defendant's category B) 6 Additional good-cause waiver methodology documents 95-105 Draft Methodologies Under Consideration (Defendant's category D) 9 Utah program management reports 106-08 Discussion/Issue Papers (Defendant's category A) (Note: The parties categorized the documents differently. Plaintiff's categorizations are in regular print; defendant's are in bold print.)

19900611

© 1992-2004 VersusLaw Inc.



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