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Delta Ltd. v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Bureau

July 26, 2005

DELTA LIMITED PLAINTIFF,
v.
U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION BUREAU DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Signed by Royce C. Lamberth, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter comes before the Court on defendant's motion for summary judgment and plaintiff's opposition thereto. Also before the Court is plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment and defendant's opposition thereto. Upon consideration of the filings, the entire record herein and the relevant law, the Court will grant defendant's motion for summary judgment as to all redactions and withholdings except those documents withheld or redacted based solely on Exemption 4. The Court will also deny plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment on all withholdings and exemptions except those documents withheld based solely on Exemption 4, as to which the Court will grant summary judgment for plaintiff.

I. Procedural Posture

This case originated when plaintiff Delta Limited ("Delta") filed a request with defendant, United States Customs and Border Protection Bureau ("CBP") on September 3, 2003 and September 4, 2003 under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") seeking "all information relied upon by Customs for the seizure in [Customs Case Number 2003-2704-000603]."

(Declaration of Joanne Roman Stump from February 11, 2005 "Stump Decl. I" Ex. C.) Plaintiff further requested "the manuals, guidelines, directives, etc. relied upon by Customs,...all records and or information that proves that [sic] alleged violations in this case." (Id.) Plaintiff filed an identical request in regards to case number 2003-2704-000768. (Id.) Plaintiff's request was initially denied by the Fines, Penalties and Forfeitures ("FP&F") Officer for CBP, upon which plaintiff appealed the FP&F Officer's administrative decision. (See Pl.'s Mot. from February 14, 2005 at 2.) Dissatisfied with CBP's response, plaintiff filed the instant suit on December 3, 2004. (See Plaintiff's Complaint "Compl.") Defendant then subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment on February 14, 2005 (Def.'s Mot. from February 14, 2005) along with defendant's filing of a Vaughn index (Def.'s February 14, 2005 Notice of Filing Vaughn Index "Vaughn Index"). This was followed by a memorandum in opposition filed by plaintiff. (See Pl.'s Mem. from March 8, 2005.) Plaintiff then filed a cross-motion for summary judgment (Pl.'s Mot. from March 8, 2005), which was followed up by defendant's memorandum in opposition to plaintiff's motion (See Def.'s Mem. from March 18, 2005), with a subsequent reply by plaintiff (See Pl.'s Mem. from March 28, 2005).

II. Background

Plaintiff is Delta Limited, an exporter of merchandise from China. (Compl. ¶ 4.) Defendant is U.S. Customs and Border Protection Bureau ("CBP") of the Los Angeles/Long Beach Seaport, an agency of the United States. (Id. ¶ 5.) On May 13, 2003, CBP seized merchandise from Delta (Container Nos. TPCU5913308 and ECMU8014) at the Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor. (Id. ¶¶ 6-7.) On September 3 and 4, 2003, Delta filed a FOIA request with CBP. Delta claimed it needed "documents from Customs...relied upon to make the seizures and to prepare a petition for release pursuant to 19 U.S.C. §1618." (Id. ¶¶ 8-9.) Plaintiff's FOIA request was initially denied by the FP&F Officer. (See Stump Decl. I Ex. E.) Plaintiff then appealed the FP&F Officer's administrative decision to the CBP's Disclosure Law Branch of the Office of Regulations and Rulings. (Id. Ex. F.) On October 9, 2003, plaintiff renewed its FOIA request for records relating to case nos. 2003-2704-000603 and 203-2704-000768 along with an "Appointment and Authorization of Attorney" on behalf of Delta (Id. Ex. J). This authorization was not included in the initial FOIA request by plaintiff, as it was executed twelve days after the initial FOIA request was made which resulted in the first denial.

On December 19, 2003, CBP's Port Director informed plaintiff that fifty (50) responsive documents were exempt from release pursuant to 5 U.S.C. §§ 552(b)(2), (b)(4), (b)(5) and/or (b)(7)(C), and were withheld in their entirety.*fn1 (See id. Ex. K.) Plaintiff then appealed the Port Director's administrative decision to CBP's Disclosure Law Branch of the Office of Regulations and Rulings on January 5, 2004. (See id. Ex. L.) Joanne Roman Stump, a CBP official, initially denied plaintiff's administrative appeal on August 25, 2004 (Id. Ex. N), but later Ms. Stump reviewed the records, as well as the withholdings and redactions and determined that 27 pages of the 51 should be released in part, and that the remaining 24 were properly withheld in their entirety. (Id. at 20-21.)

According to the index produced by defendant pursuant to Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820 (D.C. Cir. 1973) (see Def.'s February 14, 2005 Notice of Filing Vaughn Index "Vaughn Index") as well as the declaration by Joanne Roman Stump (see Stump Decl. I), the fifty responsive documents to plaintiff's FOIA request were redacted and/or withheld in full pursuant to Exemptions under 5 U.S.C. §§ 552(b)(2), (b)(4), (b)(5), (b)(6), (b)(7)(A), (b)(7)(C) and (b)(7)(E). CBP asserts that it properly applied the FOIA Exemptions to these documents. (See Def.'s Mot. from February 14, 2005.)

Plaintiff, while not questioning the reasonableness and adequacy of defendant's search (see Pl.'s Mot. from March 8, 2005), maintains however that CBP has not demonstrated that it properly withheld information and documents under FOIA Exemptions 2, 4, 5 and 7(A). (See Pl.'s Mot. from March 8, 2005). Plaintiff does not dispute the information withheld by defendant pursuant to Exemptions 6, 7(C) and 7(E). Plaintiff further contends that CBP has not disclosed all reasonably segregable information (Id. at 9), and that defendant has failed to justify its delays as required by 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(C).

III. Analysis

A. Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) when no genuine issue of material fact exists. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact exists if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). As with Rule 12(b)(6) motions for dismissal, facts and inferences drawn from those facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). Summary judgment may still be granted, however, if evidence favoring the non-moving party is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted). Once the moving party files a proper summary judgment motion, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. For a non-moving party to establish a genuine issue for trial exists, it must do more than simply show there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).

1. Standard for Summary Judgment in FOIA Actions

For an agency to prevail on a motion for summary judgment in a FOIA action, it must prove that no genuine issue of material fact exists, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the requester. Weisberg v. U.S. Department of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984). The agency must demonstrate that "it has conducted a search reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents" to satisfy this burden. Id. at 1485 (citations omitted). Whether or not the agency's search is reasonably calculated depends on the adequacy of the search, not on the results, and the adequacy of an agency's search is determined on a case-by-case basis, guided by a standard of reasonableness. Id. As this Court has previously noted, reiterating the de-emphasis on results, "in assessing the reasonableness of a search, a court is not guided by whether the search actually uncovered every document or whether the search was exhaustive." Ferranti v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, 177 F. Supp. 2d 41, 46 (D.D.C. 2001) (Lamberth, J.). In order to prove this adequacy threshold has been met, the agency may rely upon "reasonably detailed nonconclusory affidavits submitted in good faith." Id.

B. Reasonableness and Adequacy of Defendant's Search

Under the FOIA, an agency is required to make a "good faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records, using methods reasonably expected to produce the information requested." Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't. of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990). When determining the adequacy of an agency's search, a court may measure the reasonableness in light of the scope of the request. Meerpol v. Meese, 790 F.2d 942, 956 (D.C. Cir. 1986). In the instant case, plaintiff maintains that CBP's search was reasonable and adequate (see Pl.'s Mot. from March 8, 2005 at 2), yet plaintiff questions the methods used and systems searched by defendant in performing its search (Id. at 3). In light of the declaration by Joanne Roman Stump, the FOIA Appeals Officer and Branch Chief of the Disclosure Law Branch, International Trade Compliance Division, Office of Regulations & Rulings with the CBP (See Stump Decl. I) as well as the supplemental declaration of Ms. Stump (See Decl. of Joanne Roman Stump from March 17, 2005 "Stump Decl. II"), it is clear that CBP satisfied its burden under the FOIA in both the adequacy and reasonableness of the agency's search.

After plaintiff submitted its request for records related to the two specific FP&F case numbers, a FOIA processor at LA FP&F "examined the seizure case files...to find each document that would be responsive to the request." (Stump Decl. I ¶ 19.) Fifty (50) documents were found to be responsive (Id.), which were contained within the Seized Assets and Case Tracking System ("SEACATS"), which is a module within the Treasury Enforcement Computer System ("TECS") (Stump Decl. II ¶ 4). All records from SEACATS pertaining to the seizure are included in the administrative seizure file. (Id. at ¶¶ 4-5.) In preparation for this litigation, defendant produced Vaughn declarations and indices listing all of the responsive documents to the search, including what information was ...


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