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Chavez-Arellano v. United States Dep't of Justice

August 11, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge


Jose Miguel Chavez-Arellano, proceeding pro se, filed this action pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, appealing the disposition of his records requests by the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI"), the Executive Office for United States Attorneys ("EOUSA"), and the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA"). Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment and plaintiff an opposition to the motion. For the following reasons, the Court will grant Defendants' motion.



On December 4, 2001, Mr. Chavez-Arrellano sent a FOIA request to the Department of Justice ("DOJ"), Justice Management Division, for a copy of "File # M-6000103 DEA Lab Analysis of Methamphetamine and Fingerprint Analysis" from the case prosecuted against him in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Decl. of David M. Hardy Exh.

A.*fn1 The request was forwarded to the FBI. Id. By letters dated July 17, 2002, and August 7, 2002, the FBI informed Plaintiff that a search of their records system and files did not produce any records responsive to his request. Id. Exhs. C, D.

On January 7, 2004, Plaintiff sent a FOIA request to the FBI's headquarters ("FBIHQ") seeking all records related to him in all of the agency's branches and offices. Id. Exh. E. In response, FBIHQ advised Plaintiff that it could not locate any records pertaining to him. Id. Exh. F. Plaintiff sent the same request to the FBI's Houston Field Office and the FBIHQ's Assistant Director of the Laboratory Division. Id. Exhs. G, I. Plaintiff again was advised that no records were found responsive to his request. Id. Exhs. H, J.

Plaintiff appealed the disposition of his requests to the Office of Information and Privacy ("OIP"). Id. Exh. K. The OIP affirmed the FBI's actions on Plaintiff's requests. Id. Exhs. M, N.


On January 7, 2004, and January 10, 2004, Plaintiff sent letters to the EOUSA requesting all records pertaining to him maintained by the United States Attorney's Office in the Southern District of Texas ("USA/SDTX"). Decl. of John F. Boseker Exhs. A, G. After the EOUSA advised Plaintiff that his request would take up to nine months to process, Plaintiff narrowed his request to fingerprint records in his criminal case, records related to confidential informants, and a Vaughn index. Id. Exhs. B, C, D, H.

The EOUSA notified Plaintiff it had found responsive records and was sending him 8 pages in full, one page with portions withheld, and was withholding one page in full. Id. Exh. F. The EOUSA stated that it was withholding certain information from the one-page document pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 5 and 7(C). Id. The EOUSA also located one document that originated with the DEA and referred the document to that agency for a determination of whether the record was subject to disclosure under FOIA. Id.

Plaintiff appealed the EOUSA's disposition of his request. Id. Exh. M. The OIP affirmed the EOUSA's decision and informed Plaintiff that he could obtain fingerprint records directly from the DEA. Id. Exh. O.


Plaintiff made similar FOIA requests to the DEA. On June 21, 2002, DOJ referred to the DEA Plaintiff's request for "File #M-6000103 Lab Analysis of Methamphetamine and Fingerprint Analysis." Decl. of Leila I. Wassom Exhs. A, B. The DEA released to Plaintiff portions of 97 pages of records, one page in its entirety, and withheld four pages in full pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 2, 7(C), and 7(F). Id. Exh. D. The DEA informed Plaintiff that it did not possess any fingerprint analysis records and suggested he contact the FBI for that information. Id. The OIP affirmed the DEA's decision. Id. Exhs. F, H.

Plaintiff sent a FOIA request to the DEA's South Central Laboratory in Dallas, Texas, for "[a]ny and all fingerprints and/or fingerprint analysis regarding Criminal Case #5-00-CR-00355 (Laredo Division), DEA lab. File #6000103, Government Exhibit No. three (3), [5 bundles wrapped in brown wrapping tape containing brown powder]." Id. Exh. I. The DEA informed Plaintiff that it could not locate any responsive records using the criminal case number he had provided because the agency did not index records by that method. Id. Exh. L.

In January, 2004, Plaintiff sent letters to the DEA's Laredo, Texas, office requesting all records in the agency's file related to him, including other branches and offices. Id. Exh. M. After the complaint was filed in this action, DEA headquarters requested and received 41 pages of records responsive to Plaintiff's request from the Laredo office. Decl. of Leila I. Wassom ¶¶ 27, 28. On March 7, 2004, the DEA released to Plaintiff 23 pages in their entirety and 16 pages in part, and withheld 2 pages in their entirety. Id. Exh. V. On January 10, 2004, Plaintiff sent another request to the DEA for all records regarding him. Id. Exh. N. In response, the DEA stated that it had no records other than those already provided to Plaintiff. Id. Exh. O.

The EOUSA had referred a one-page record responsive to Plaintiff's FOIA request to the DEA for processing because the document had originated with that agency. Id. Exh. P. The DEA released portions of the document. Id. Exh. R. The DEA's action was affirmed on appeal by OIP. Id. Exhs. S, U.


Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Material facts are those that "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

In considering whether there is a triable issue of fact, the Court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The party opposing a motion for summary judgment, however, "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleading, but . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). The non-moving party must do more than simply "show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Moreover, "any factual assertions in the movant's affidavits will be accepted as being true unless [the opposing party] submits his own affidavits or other documentary evidence contradicting the assertion." Neal v. Kelly, 963 F.2d 453, 456 (D.C. Cir.1992) (quoting Lewis v. Faulkner, 689 F.2d 100, 102 (7th Cir. 1982)).

In a FOIA case, the Court may award summary judgment solely on the basis of information provided by the department or agency in affidavits or declarations when the affidavits or declarations describe "the documents and the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstratethat the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record nor by evidence of agency bad faith." Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). An agency must demonstrate that "each document that falls within the class requested either has been produced, is unidentifiable, or is wholly [or partially] exempt from the Act's inspection requirements." Goland v. CIA, 607 F.2d 339, 352 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (citation and quotation omitted).


A. Adequacy of the Agency Searches

To obtain summary judgment on the issue of the adequacy of the search for records under FOIA, an agency must show that, "viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the requester, . . . [it] 'has conducted a search reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.'" Steinberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 552 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (quoting Weisberg v. Dep't of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984)). To meet its burden, the agency may submit affidavits or declarations that explain in reasonable detail and in a nonconclusory fashion the scope and method of the agency's search. Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 126 (D.C. Cir. 1982). In the absence of contrary evidence, such affidavits or declarations are sufficient to demonstrate an agency's compliance with FOIA. Id. at 127. The agency must show that it made a "good faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records, using methods which ...

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