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WILLIAMS v. FBI

November 26, 1997

GENE ELLIS WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: OBERDORFER

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

 An April 16, 1997 Order denied plaintiff's motion for reconsideration, effectively ending the substantive litigation of his lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). See 5 U.S.C. § 552 (1994). Currently pending is plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees. For the reasons stated below, it will be granted.

 I.

 FOIA authorizes "reasonable attorney fees and other litigation costs reasonably incurred in any case . . . in which complainant has substantially prevailed." Id. § 552(a)(4)(E). Although defendant Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) contests this point, plaintiff has substantially prevailed in this lawsuit. He brought this action to compel the production of two documents, identified as Documents B and G, that the FBI had withheld in their entirety. Following an initial ruling by this Court and an appeal, the government reviewed Document G and "determined that a supplemental release to the plaintiff is appropriate." Bordley Aff., at P 6. While the FBI ultimately released Document G on its own accord, "the lawsuit did in fact cause the release of the data by deploying the power of the court to encourage [a] reluctant agency to waive [its] . . . interests." Chesapeake Bay Found, Inc. v. United States Dep't of Agriculture, 304 U.S. App. D.C. 167, 11 F.3d 211, 216 (D.C. Cir. 1993). It is well settled law in this Circuit that a plaintiff may substantially prevail in a FOIA case short of a court order or judgment compelling the release of information. See id.; Cuneo v. Rumsfeld, 180 U.S. App. D.C. 184, 553 F.2d 1360, 1365 (D.C. Cir. 1977).

 The litigation over Document B ensued for a much longer period, but reached a similar resolution. On March 8, 1996, after five years of litigation, the FBI was ordered to release Document B in redacted form. The FBI's argument, that "this litigation did not result in the release of any information to the plaintiff," is clearly unavailing. Def.'s Opp. to Pl.'s Mot. Attn'y's Fees, at 4. Although the Court ultimately "redacted the information that defendant contended was exempt from disclosure under the FOIA," id., the FBI also released portions of Document B that were previously unavailable to plaintiff, consistent with FOIA's dictate that "any reasonably segregable portion of a record shall be provided . . . after deletion of the portions which are exempt . . . ." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). Consequently, the filing of plaintiff's suit "(1) [was] reasonably necessary and (2) . . . substantially caused the requested records to be released." Chesapeake Bay Found, 11 F.3d at 216.

 II.

 In addition to the threshold judgment that plaintiff "substantially prevailed,"

 
there are at least four considerations to be weighed by the court in determining whether an eligible FOIA litigant is also entitled to attorney's fees: (1) the public benefit derived from the case; (2) the commercial benefit to the plaintiff; (3) the nature of the plaintiff's interest in the records; and (4) whether the Government had a reasonable basis for withholding requested information.

 Id. These factors, while not stated in the text of the FOIA attorneys' fees provision, are well rooted in its legislative history. As our Court of Appeals has emphasized since its earliest cases interpreting this provision, it is only congressional intent that can override the American presumption against the award of attorneys' fees for prevailing parties. See Cuneo, 553 F.2d at 1363-64; Nationwide Bldg. Maintenance, Inc. v. Sampson, 182 U.S. App. D.C. 83, 559 F.2d 704, 709 (D.C. Cir. 1977); see also Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 44 L. Ed. 2d 141, 95 S. Ct. 1612 (1975) (reaffirming "American Rule" against shifting attorneys' fees liability to losing party absent congressional policy to contrary).

 Congress introduced FOIA's attorneys' fees provision, along with other innovations, only after it witnessed recalcitrance by government agencies in complying with the dictates of the Act. As our Court of Appeals noted, "Extensive oversight hearings held in 1971 and 1972 brought to light substantial 'foot-dragging' on the part of administrative officials who invoked every conceivable delaying technique and forced citizens requesting information under the FOIA to resort to expensive litigation for vindication of their statutory rights." Sampson, 559 F.2d at 710. While multiple FOIA amendments wound their way through the 93rd Congress, Senator Edward Kennedy introduced a Senate bill, explicitly directing the trial court to consider the four factors enumerated above "in exercising its discretion" to award attorneys' fees. S. 2543, 93d Cong. (1974), reprinted in 120 Cong. Rec. 17014 (1974). The final version of the act, see Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, Pub. L. No. 93-502, 88 Stat. 1561 (1974), removed the four factors from the text, but Congress was clear that it did "not intend . . . to preclude the courts, in exercising their discretion as to awarding such fees, to take into consideration such criteria." H.R. Rep. No. 93-1380, at 10 (1975).

 Consequently, our Court of Appeals has always turned to these (and other) criteria in evaluating the exercise of a trial court's discretion to grant or deny and motion for attorneys' fees to a prevailing plaintiff. See Cuneo, 553 F.2d at 1365; Sampson, 559 F.2d at 714. Yet, courts "must be careful not to give any particular factor dispositive weight." Id. Indeed, Congress was clear that the four enumerated criteria were "intended to provide guidance and direction--not airtight standards . . . ." S. Rep. No. 93-854, at 19 (1974). They were intentionally removed from the text of FOIA for fear that they "may be too delimiting . . . ." H.R. Rep. No. 93-1380, at 10. The application of FOIA's attorneys' fees provision remains vested in the sound discretion of the district court.

 A.

 Under the first criterion articulated by Congress--the benefit to the public derived from litigation of this case--plaintiff does not underscore a public interest that correlates to "the specific documents at issue in the case at hand," as required by the Court of Appeals. Cotton v. Heyman, 314 U.S. App. D.C. 161, 63 F.3d 1115, 1120 (D.C. Cir. 1995). In this case, Mr. Williams sought FBI records that pertained to his arrest for narcotics trafficking in Charlotte, North Carolina, seemingly for the purpose of challenging his arrest on constitutional grounds. See Pl.'s Mot. Attn'y's Fees, at 4. While of great interest to himself, these specific documents are of little interest to the general public. See Cotton, 63 F.3d at 1120 (finding that documents sought to facilitate employment discrimination suit did not "contribute to the public's ability to make vital political choices"); Republic of New Afrika v. FBI, 645 F. ...


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