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DORSETT v. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY

March 10, 2004.

MICHAEL L. DORSETT, Plaintiff
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY, UNITED STATES SECRET SERVICE, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: REGGIE B. WALTON, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

In this action, one of several filed by the pro se plaintiff Michael Dorsett,*fn1 plaintiff seeks records that he contends are maintained in the defendant's systems of records pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (2000) ("FOIA") and Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a (2000) ("PA"). Because the Court concludes that the defendant has, for the most part, satisfied its obligations pursuant to the FOIA and the PA, it will grant in part, and deny in part the defendant's motion for summary judgment.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

  At the time he filed this lawsuit, plaintiff was a federal prisoner incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution at Page 2 Seagoville, Texas. Compl. ¶ 4.*fn2 On May 31, 2000, plaintiff submitted a FOIA/PA request to the defendant seeking "[a]11 records maintained in the agency's system of records related to requester." Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s Mot."), Exhibit ("Ex.") A (Declaration of Gary L. Edwards, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, FOIA/PA Office, United States Secret Service, dated October 11, 2000) ("Edwards Decl."), Ex. 1 (Plaintiff's FOIA Request). In a letter dated July 12, 2000, the defendant informed plaintiff that his request was received by the Secret Service on June 29, 2000, and that "[a] search for files responsive to [his] request [was] being conducted." Edwards Decl., Ex. 2 (Letter to Michael Dorsett from Gary L. Edwards dated July 12, 2000).*fn3 The defendant wrote a second letter to plaintiff on July 25, 2000, in which it stated that documents responsive to plaintiff's request had been located and were being reviewed. Id., Ex. 3 (Letter to Michael Dorsett from Gary L. Edwards dated July 25, 2000).

  On September 5, 2000, the agency produced to plaintiff copies of certain records responsive to his request, deleting information from some of these documents pursuant to several FOIA exemptions, and withholding 14 pages in their entirety. Id., Ex. Page 3 7 (Letter to Michael Dorsett from Gary L. Edwards dated September 5, 2000).*fn4 In total, forty-nine documents were produced to plaintiff. Id., Ex. 8 (Defendant's Vaughn Index);*fn5 Defendant's Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s Mem.") at 1. The defendant also forwarded two documents, one to the State Department and another to the Federal Bureau of Investigations ("FBI"), because the documents originated with them. Id., Ex. 5 (Letter to the State Department dated September 5, 2000); Ex. 6, (Letter to FBI dated September 5, 2000). The State Department subsequently released to the plaintiff the one document that had been forwarded to it in its entirety. Edwards Decl. ¶ 15. The document referred to the FBI was at issue in one of the other lawsuits filed in this Court by the plaintiff and summary judgment was granted to the FBI in that matter because it provided the plaintiff with the information he was entitled to receive. Dorsett v. United States Dep't of Justice, No. 00-2254, slip op. at 1 (Sept. 24, 2003).

  Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on July 21, 2000, because the Secret Service had failed to respond to his request within the 20 Page 4 days allotted by the FOIA. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(i).*fn6 The defendant has now moved for summary judgment.

  II. ANALYSIS

  A. Standard of Review

  The court may grant summary judgment when there is no genuine issue of material fact in dispute and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 321-23 (1986). In resolving a motion for summary judgment, all reasonable inferences that may be gleaned from the facts before the court must be construed in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). In a FOIA case, to satisfy this standard, "the `defending agency must prove that each document that falls within the class requested either has been produced, is unidentifiable, or is wholly exempt from the (FOIA's) inspection requirements.'" Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 126 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (citation omitted). When reviewing an agency's treatment of a plaintiff's FOIA request, "the court shall determine the matter de novo, and may examine the contents of such agency records in camera to determine whether such records or any part thereof shall be withheld under any of the Page 5 [FOIA's] exemptions[.] . . . [T]he burden is on the agency to sustain its action." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); see also Founding Church of Scientology of Washington, D.C., Inc. v. Nat'l Security Agency, 610 F.2d 824, 830 (D.C. Cir. 1979).

  B. Adequacy of Defendant's Search

  The first question the Court will address in deciding whether summary judgment is proper is whether the agency conducted a proper search for records responsive to plaintiff's request. The "FOIA requires an agency responding to a FOIA request to conduct a reasonable search using methods which can be reasonably expected to produce the information requested." Shores v. FBI, 185 F. Supp.2d 77, 81-82 (D.D.C. 2002) (citing Campbell v. DOJ, 164 F.3d 20, 27 (D.C. Cir. 1998)). According to the Edwards Declaration, the defendant searched the Secret Service's Master Central Index ("MCI") for documents responsive to plaintiff's request. Edwards Decl. ¶ 8. The MCI is

 
an on-line computer system used by all Secret Service field offices, resident offices, resident agencies, protective divisions, and headquarter divisions for a variety of applications. The MCI provides a system of record keeping of information for cases and subjects of record in investigative, protective, and administrative files maintained by the Secret Service. Individuals on whom the Secret Service maintains records are indexed on MCI by name, social security number, and/or date of birth.
Id. ¶ 9. Searches for information regarding plaintiff were conducted using "plaintiff's name, social security number, and date of birth. . . ." Id. ¶ 8. Page 6

  "[T]he competence of any records-search is a matter dependent upon the circumstances of the case. . . ." Founding Church of Scientolocrv, 610 F.2d at 834. Plaintiff contends that the defendant did not conduct an adequate search for responsive records for several reasons. First, plaintiff contends that defendant referred documents to the State Department and the FBI when the agency had the duty to produce those records. Plaintiff's Amended Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Pl.'s Am. Opp'n") at 7, 20. However, the fact that this was done does not alone establish that the search was inadequate. Actually, it was the thoroughness of the search which unveiled the responsive documents that had been originated by the State Department and the FBI. Edwards Decl. ¶ 14. The documents were therefore forwarded to those agencies along with requests that they respond directly to the plaintiff regarding the information they had originated. Id. ¶¶ 15-16. The issue raised by defendant's referral is "whether the `referral procedure result[ed] in the improper withholding . . . of [d]ocuments[.]'" Maydak v. DOJ, 254 F. Supp.2d 23, 40 (D.D.C. 2003) (Walton, J) (citing Peralta v. United States Attorney's Office, 136 F.3d 169, 175 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (citing 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B)). Because the plaintiff has received the referred document from the State Department, Edwards Decl. 5 15, and this Court has granted summary judgment Page 7 to the FBI regarding the production of the documents referred to it, Dorsett v. United States Pep't of Justice, No. 00-2254, slip op. at 1 (Sept. 24, 2003), the answer to this question is no.*fn7 See Crooker v. United States State Dep't, 628 F.2d 9, 10, 11 (D.C. Cir. 1980) ("The Freedom of Information Act does not require that the agency from which documents are requested must release copies of those documents when another agency possessing the same material has already done so. . . . Where the records have already been furnished, it is abusive and a dissipation of agency and court resources to make and process a second claim."),

  Next, plaintiff argues that the agency's search was inadequate because the defendant failed to include several documents that plaintiff knows exists. Pl.'s Am. Opp'n at 20. These documents include "Secret Service agents reports and field notes"; "documents [that] originated with the Missouri Highway Patrol"; "records related to electronic surveillance"; and "transcripts referenced in defendant's own documents." Id.

  Defendant contends that its search for responsive records was complete and if there were relevant Secret Service reports and field notes that exist, "any material relating thereto should be maintained in the file that was searched in response to Page 8 plaintiff's FOIA request." Defendant's Reply Memorandum in Support of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s Reply") at 3.

  "[A] search is not inadequate simply because it failed to yield every document that [a] Plaintiff seeks." Shores, 185 F. Supp.2d at 82 (citation omitted). Plaintiff does not challenge the "scope and method" used by defendant to conduct its search, id.; he simply alleges, based on his own belief, that more responsive documents exist. However, the Edwards declaration clearly explains the system of records the defendant searched, the identifying information used as the predicate for the search, and the scope of the search. This was sufficient to justify the search method utilized by the defendant in this case. See Perry, 684 F.2d at 127 ("[A]ffidavits that explain in reasonable detail the scope and method of the search conducted by the agency will suffice to demonstrate compliance with the obligations imposed by the FOIA."). The contents of the Edwards declaration convinces the Court that the defendant's search for responsive documents was adequate. See id. (noting that although agency's description of its search method "could have been more detailed," the agency's search "was reasonably complete and thorough" because the agency's "affiants identified with reasonable specificity the system of records searched and the geographical location of those files."); Shores, 185 F. Supp.2d at 82 (granting summary Page 9 judgment to the agency where although plaintiff claimed the agency "refused to send him documents responsive to his request[,]" the Court noted that plaintiff did not challenge the "scope and method" used by the defendants to search for documents); Master v. FBI, 926 F. Supp. 193, 196, 197 (D.D.C. 1996) (holding that an agency's declarations that "set[ ] forth the procedures followed . . . in responding to plaintiff's FOIA request, including a description of the systems records searched, an explanation of the FBI Central Records Systems files and how those files are accessed, and the results of the search of the manual and automated indices of the Central Records system[,]" were sufficient to "establish that the defendant performed an adequate search.").

 
C. Adequacy of the Defendant's Vaughn Index
  Second, the Court will address the adequacy of the defendant's submitted Vaughn index. The District of Columbia Circuit has held that an agency must provide "[a]n analysis sufficiently detailed" in support of any claimed exemptions. Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d at 820, 827 (D.C. Cir. 1973). This analysis, which is termed a Vaughn index, is the method designed by the courts whereby non-disclosing parties in FOIA cases can present their reasons to the courts for not providing information that has been requested. Id. With this information, the Court is able to evaluate the legitimacy of the withholding of Page 10 information without having to physically examine each of the documents on which withheld information is contained. Id. at 823; Coastal States Gas Corp. v. Dep't of Energy, 617 F.2d 854, 861 (D.C. Cir. 1980). To be adequate, a Vaughhn index (1) "should be contained in one document. . . ."; (2) "must adequately describe each withheld document or deletion from a released document," and (3) "must state the exemption claimed for each deletion or withheld document, and explain why the exemption is relevant." Founding Church of Scientoloqy v. Bell, 603 F.2d 945, 949 (D.C. Cir. 1979).

  Here, the defendant has submitted a Vaughn index which separately identifies each of the 49 documents at issue, provides a description of the documents, lists the applicable exemptions, and states the basis for the applicability of the claimed exemptions. See Def.'s Mot., Ex. 8, (Vaughn Index). In addition, the Edwards declaration provides a further analysis of the reasons for the defendant's claimed exemptions and the defendant has submitted for the Court's inspection the documents produced to the plaintiff, in redacted form. This record satisfies the requirements of a proper Vaughn index as it provides a sufficient basis for the Court, and the plaintiff, to evaluate the agency's claimed exemptions. See Keys v. DOJ, 830 F.2d 337, 349 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (holding that government agency's Vaughn index was sufficient where it submitted declarations that Page 11 "describe[d] in detail the contexts in which all the documents were collected[,]" and contained "a copy of every document, in redacted form, that appellant received . . . and two lengthy affidavits discussing the redactions."); Hinton v. Pep't of Justice, 844 F.2d 126, 129 (3d Cir. 1988) (stating, in dicta, that ...


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