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Edmonds Institute v. United States Dep't of the Interior

August 23, 2005


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge


The Edmonds Institute ("Edmonds") is a non-profit organization whose mission is the maintenance and protection of ecosystems and their inhabitants. Edmonds brings this action under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, seeking the release of certain documents from the National Park Service ("NPS") at the Department of the Interior ("DOI") relating to the NPS's proposal to enter into "benefits sharing" agreements with private parties permitting the collection and commercial use of biological materials from national parks.

The DOI has filed a motion for summary judgment, to which it has attached a Vaughn index listing the documents it has withheld or redacted. Edmonds has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, arguing that the DOI was wrong to withhold certain communications between the agency and an outside contractor under Exemption 5 of FOIA; used an improper cut-off date for the search for and release of documents; failed to submit an adequate Vaughn index and provide all segregable portions of released documents; and violated the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA") by delaying a response to Edmonds' FOIA request for more than the twenty days specified in the statute.

For the reasons stated below, the Court grants in part and denies in part the parties' respective motions, ordering the DOI to submit a more complete Vaughn index before the Court turns to the Exemption 5 question, but rejecting the contentions that the DOI used an invalid cutoff date and violated the APA.

I. Vaughn Index and Segregability

Congress enacted the FOIA "to open up the workings of government to public scrutiny through the disclosure of government records." Stern v. FBI, 737 F.2d 84, 88 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (quotation omitted). In so doing, however, Congress acknowledged that "legitimate governmental and private interests could be harmed by release of certain types of information." Critical Mass Energy Project v. Nuclear Regulatory Comm'n, 975 F.2d 871, 872 (D.C. Cir. 1992). Accordingly, FOIA recognizes nine exemptions pursuant to which an agency may withhold requested information. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B) & (b)(1)-(9).

When an agency withholds information pursuant to a FOIA exemption, it usually must produce a "Vaughn index," a description of the records, or portions of records, withheld by the agency. See Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820, 827 (D.C. Cir. 1973); Coldiron v. United States Dep't of Justice, 310 F. Supp. 2d 44, 46 (D.D.C. 2004). The defendant must include in the Vaughn index "a description of each document being withheld, and an explanation of the reason for the agency's nondisclosure." Oglesby v. United States Dep't of Army, 79 F.3d 1172, 1176-77 (D.C. Cir. 1996). The index must provide "as much information as possible without thwarting the [asserted] exemption's purpose." King v. United States Dep't of Justice, 830 F.2d 210, 224-25 (D.C. Cir. 1987).*fn1

Once the agency identifies a document that it believes falls within an exemption, it must undertake a "segregability analysis," in which it separates the exempt from the non-exempt portions of the document, and produces the relevant non-exempt information. See Vaughn, 484 F.2d at 825 ("[A]n entire document is not exempt merely because an isolated portion need not be disclosed. Thus the agency may not sweep a document under a general allegation of exemption, even if that general allegation is correct with regard to part of the information."). The Vaughn index should contain a description of the segregability analysis, explaining "in detail which portions of the document are disclosable and which are allegedly exempt." Id. at 827; see King, 830 F.2d at 224 (quotation omitted) (agency should provide a "relatively detailed justification, specifically identifying the reasons why a particular exemption is relevant and correlating those claims with the particular part of a withheld document to which they apply"). "A submission that does not do that does not even qualify as a 'Vaughn index.'" Schiller v. NLRB, 964 F.2d 1205, 1210 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

The materials that the DOI submitted in this case fall short of this standard. The DOI has produced a table listing, for each document, the sender, the recipient, a brief characterization of the nature of the document (a typical listing is "Email re: draft text"), and a number corresponding to one of eight categories of documents set out in the accompanying declaration of an NPS official. All but one of the documents remaining in dispute are labeled as Category 1,*fn2 which the declaration describes only as consisting of "e-mails among Department and other agency personnel, including contractors and consultants, commenting on the development of the Benefits-Sharing EIS."*fn3 Decl. of Susan Mills ("Mills Decl."), Nov. 10, 2004, ¶ 10. The declaration provides a more detailed description for six of the withheld Category 1 documents, but none of the others.*fn4 The submissions also do not tailor the exemption claim to a particular portion of each of the withheld documents, even failing to describe whether a document was withheld in part or in full. The DOI relies for its segregation analysis on a single paragraph in the declaration that states that the withheld documents were evaluated for segregability and that

reasonably segregable factual material has been released whenever possible, unless such factual information is inextricably intertwined with deliberative communications, or where the drafter's selection of which factual material to include in the document would indicate the nature of the deliberative communication.

Mills Decl. ¶ 20.

These materials are deficient in two respects, each of which the DOI should remedy in a new Vaughn index. First, the DOI must provide a brief but sufficiently detailed description of thecontent of each document it continues to withhold under Exemption 5. See Oglesby v. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 67 n.12 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (agency must provide "detailed description of each document withheld"). The description need not be long, but should include something more than the nature of the document in question (i.e., e-mail, report) and its title.*fn5 The description of a sample of the documents that the DOI provided in its declaration is sufficient, and could serve as a model. See supra note 4. The DOI is welcome to continue to group documents into categories in order to explain its rationale for withholding documents. See Maydak v. United States Dep't of Justice, 218 F.3d 760, 763 (D.C. Cir. 2000). The index nonetheless should contain a short description of the content of each individual document, sufficient to allow Edmonds and this Court to test the claim that the particular document (or portion of a document) comes within Exemption 5. See Spirko v. United States Postal Service, 147 F.3d 992, 996 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (description should be sufficiently "detailed to permit meaningful review of exemption claims").*fn6

Second, the new index should connect the claimed exemption to the relevant withheld portions of each document, and explain whether there is any information that can be segregated as non-exempt from the rest of the document. See Schiller, 964 F.2d at 1209-10 ("Rather than asserting that certain exemptions apply to certain documents, the Board should have correlated the theories of exemptions with the particular textual segments which it desired exempted."). Where the agency believes the entire document is covered by Exemption 5, it should so state. The generalized paragraph on segregability in the Mills declaration does not alone suffice. One court recently described an almost identical section of a declaration as "patently insufficient" to meet an agency's obligation to segregate, and this Court agrees. Animal Legal Defense Fund, 44 F. Supp. 2d at 301; see King, 830 F.2d at 219 (Vaughn index and supporting affidavit "cannot support summary judgment if they are conclusory, merely reciting statutory standards, or if they are too vague or sweeping").

The Court will therefore direct the DOI to produce a more detailed Vaughn index. See Schiller, 964 F.2d at 1209 (rejecting Vaughn index where the "index does not correlate the claimed exemptions to particular passages in the memos" and the "agency affidavit similarly refers to entire documents and not any passages within them"). The Court will allow the DOI thirty days from the date of this order to submit a renewed index. Because the very purpose of the Vaughn index is to produce the information necessary for the requester to challenge -- and a court to conduct a meaningful review of -- the claimed exemptions, the Court will defer consideration of the Exemption 5 arguments in this case until such time as the DOI has submitted a revised Vaughn index. See Schiller, 964 F.2d at 1210 ("[I]t is error for a district court to simply approve the withholding of an entire document without entering a finding on segregability, or the lack thereof."); Electronic Privacy Information Ctr. v. Dep't of Homeland Sec., No. 04-0944, 2005 WL 1745303, at *5 ...

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