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Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides v. Environmental Protection Agency

March 21, 2006

NORTHWEST COALITION FOR ALTERNATIVES TO PESTICIDES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Emmet G. Sullivan United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Pending before the Court is plaintiff Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides' ("NCAP") Motion for an Award of Attorney Fees and Costs in the amount of $41,711.69. The request arises from NCAP's lawsuit against defendant, Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA"), pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552. Plaintiff argues that it is eligible for attorney's fees because it substantially prevailed when the Court granted partial summary judgment to plaintiff in its order of March 28, 2003, finding that EPA "violated FOIA in failing to provide an adequate response to NCAP's April 1997 FOIA request." Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides v. Whitman ("NCAP"), 254 F. Supp. 2d 125, 134 (D.D.C. 2003). Plaintiff next contends that it is entitled to fees because the action resulted in a public benefit, plaintiff's interest in the case is "public-interest oriented" rather than commercial, and the government had unreasonably withheld the records. Finally, plaintiff maintains that its request of $41,711.69 in fees and costs is reasonable.

Defendant responds that plaintiff did not prevail because the Court ultimately granted defendant's renewed Motion for Summary Judgment, and no documents were released. Defendant also argues that even if plaintiff could establish that it was a prevailing party, plaintiff is not entitled to attorney's fees under FOIA because there is a lack of public benefit and because EPA's withholdings were reasonable. Finally, defendant contends that the hours and rates claimed by plaintiff are excessive.

Upon consideration of plaintiff's motion, and the responses and replies thereto, the Court concludes that plaintiff did substantially prevail and that it is entitled to attorney's fees. The Court finds, however, that plaintiff should not be compensated for the unnecessary litigation of its Motion for Entry of Judgment and has subtracted those hours from plaintiff's fees request.*fn1 Accordingly, plaintiff's motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

I. Procedural Background

Plaintiff's claim arises from an April 18, 1997 request for copies of substantiation comments submitted by five companies. Plaintiff brought this suit claiming that EPA's failure to fully respond to its FOIA request, and its delay in responding, was a violation of FOIA. Plaintiff also argued that the EPA regulation, pursuant to which the agency withheld a substantiation letter responsive to NCAP's April 18, 1997 request, violated FOIA and the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. § 706.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment and, on March 28, 2003, this Court granted in part plaintiff's motion and granted in part defendant's motion. NCAP v. Whitman, 254 F. Supp. 2d 125 (D.D.C. 2003). The Court granted summary judgment for the defendant on the APA claim. On the FOIA claim, the Court granted summary judgment for plaintiffs, concluding that the defendant's response "violated FOIA in failing to provide an adequate response to NCAP's April 1997 FOIA request." Id. at 134. The Court remanded the case to EPA "for an explanation of whether the agency has determined that all of the information redacted by Uniroyal from its substantiation letter is properly withheld under FOIA." Id. The explanation was due by June 30, 2003. Id. at 135.

Pursuant to the Court's remand, defendant filed a supplemental Vaughn declaration on May 16, 2003. In its supplemental declaration, the agency stated that it had conducted another review of the information redacted by Uniroyal and had determined that this information was properly withheld pursuant to Exemption 4 of FOIA.

Plaintiff filed a Motion for Entry of Final Judgment on June 23, 2004 and defendant filed a Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment on July 6, 2004. In an Opinion dated March 16, 2005, the Court denied plaintiff's motion and granted defendant's motion. Memorandum Opinion dated March 16, 2005 (the "2005 Order") at 5-6. The Court held that final judgment in plaintiff's favor was inappropriate at that stage of the proceedings, and that plaintiff must file a separate motion for attorney's fees if that was the purpose of its motion. 2005 Order at 3-4. The Court also granted defendant's Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court found that in its supplemental submission, EPA explained that it conducted another review of the information redacted by Uniroyal in Uniroyal's substantiation letter, and the Court determined that the information was properly withheld from plaintiff under FOIA's Exemption 4. 2005 Order at 4-6. Plaintiff did not contest that determination or make any other claims under FOIA. Id. Therefore, "plaintiff has successfully obtained all of the documents to which it is entitled under FOIA and there is no more for the Court to do." Id.

II. Legal Framework

FOIA allows awards of attorney fees and costs to prevailing plaintiffs for two purposes: (1) "to encourage Freedom of Information Act suits that benefit the public interest" and (2) to serve "as compensation for enduring an agency's unreasonable obduracy in refusing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act's requirements." LaSalle Extension Univ. v. Federal Trade Comm'n, 627 F.2d 481, 484 (D.C. Cir. 1980). A court may "assess against the United States reasonable attorneys fees and other litigation costs reasonably incurred in any case under [the Act] in which the complainant has substantially prevailed." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E). Thus, in exercising its statutory discretion under the FOIA regarding attorney fees, the Court must engage in a two-step substantive inquiry: (1) whether the plaintiff is eligible for an award of fees and/or costs; and, if so, (2) whether the plaintiff is entitled to the award. See Cotton v. Heyman, 63 F.3d 1115, 1117 (D.C. Cir. 1995); Tax Analysts v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 965 F.2d 1092, 1093 (D.C. Cir. 1992). Even if a plaintiff meets both of these tests, the award of fees and costs is within the Court's discretion. Id.

To be eligible for attorney's fees, a plaintiff must demonstrate that it "substantially prevailed." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E). The meaning of the phrase "substantially prevailed" is defined as a "judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship of the parties." Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 605 (2001). Plaintiffs are generally considered prevailing parties if they succeed on "any significant issue in litigation which achieves some benefit the parties sought in bringing the suit." Edmonds v. FBI, 417 F.3d 1319, 1326 (D.C. Cir. 2005).

In determining whether a plaintiff is entitled to attorney's fees under FOIA, the Court must consider 1) the public benefit derived from the case; 2) the commercial benefit to the complainant; 3) the nature of the complainant's interest in the records sought; and 4) whether the government's withholding had a reasonable basis in law. See Cotton, 63 F.3d at 1117; Tax Analysts, 965 F.2d at 1093. These factors must be balanced, although failure to satisfy the fourth factor may foreclose a claim for attorney's fees. See, e.g., Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 11 F.3d 211, 216-17 (D.C. Cir. 1993).

III. Plaintiff is Eligible for Attorney's Fees Because the Court's Order of March 28, 2003 Changed the ...


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