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Smith v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

September 19, 2006



Before the Court are defendant's motion for summary judgment, plaintiff's opposition, and defendant's reply. Upon considering the pleadings and the entire record herein, the Court concludes that defendant is entitled to summary judgment.


Plaintiff brings this pro se action pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA").

5 U.S.C. § 552 et seq. Plaintiff is an inmate in a federal corrections facility. He filed his original FOIA request with the Atlanta Field Office ("ATFO") of the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") on November 23, 2004. In this request, plaintiff sought "all documents regarding seizure number 3040-02-F-0133, including but not limited to: inventory lists, disposition of item seized, and location of items seized," as well as "the investigative notes and associated files, related search warrants and affidavits and the identity of all agents, officers, etc. involved with this seizure." (Hardy Decl. ¶ 5.) The ATFO forwarded plaintiff's request to FBI Headquarters ("FBIHQ"), which mailed plaintiff an acknowledgment of receipt on December 6, 2004. Upon receiving no further immediate response, plaintiff wrote to FBIHQ on February 26, 2005 and March 24, 2005, declaring that the statutory period for a FOIA response had expired, that he deemed his administrative remedies exhausted, and that he would file an action in district court. FBIHQ acknowledged receipt of these letters in a letter dated April 21, 2005, which informed plaintiff that the material he requested was located in an open investigative file and was exempt from disclosure pursuant to 5 U.S.C. §§ 552(b)(7)(A) and 552(b)(7)(C). In the same letter, FBIHQ advised plaintiff that he could appeal this denial by writing to the Co-Director of the Office of Information and Privacy ("OIP") in the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ"). Plaintiff filed no such appeal.

On January 31, 2006, plaintiff mailed a second letter to FBIHQ requesting, inter alia, all investigative documentation relating to File No. 305A-BA-80998-E6522-KC, materials used to obtain a search warrant, and any other information relating to him. FBIHQ searched its automated indices and its central records system using plaintiff's name, date of birth, and Social Security number. FBIHQ failed to locate any responsive documents. (Hardy Decl. ¶ 23.) FBIHQ notified plaintiff of this result by letter dated March 6, 2006, and again informed plaintiff of his right to file an administrative appeal with OIP. Plaintiff filed no such appeal regarding his second request.

Plaintiff made a third request on February 13, 2006, for copies of laws and regulations authorizing the investigation of persons within the United States. FBIHQ responded in a letter to plaintiff dated May 2, 2006, explaining that FOIA does not require federal agencies to answer inquiries, create records, conduct research or draw conclusions concerning queried data. Because FBIHQ regarded the third request as improper under the statute, it took no further action on plaintiff's third request. (Hardy Decl. ¶ 25.)

On March 30, 2006, plaintiff mailed his fourth request, seeking "the production of a detailed indexing of all records, objects, and/or communications within [the FBI]" and a Vaughn index of, inter alia, all documents seized from his homes or businesses or related to him in any way. The FBI did not respond to this request before plaintiff filed a complaint with this Court on June 5, 2006. On July 14, 2006, FBIHQ conducted a search similar to the one it performed in response to plaintiff's January 31, 2006 request, but the search yielded no responsive documents. (Hardy Decl. ¶ 26.) FBIHQ notified him of this result in a letter dated August 4, 2006, and advised plaintiff of his right under 28 C.F.R. §§ 16.3(a) and 16.41(a) to write directly to a specific FBI field office for records from that field office.*fn1 On August 7, 2006, defendant filed this motion for summary judgment.


I. Standard of Review

This Court will grant a motion for summary judgment if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions 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). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, this Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 149 (2000). The non-moving party cannot rely on "mere allegations or denials . . . but . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (citation omitted).

In a FOIA case, the Court may award summary judgment to the agency based on the information provided in affidavits or declarations when those affidavits or declarations describe "the documents and the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstrate that 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) (citation omitted). An agency must prove that "each document that falls within the class requested either has been produced, is unidentifiable, or is wholly exempt from the Act's inspection requirements." Goland v. CIA, 607 F.2d 339, 352 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

II. Exhaustion

An individual must generally exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit in federal court. See Renegotiation Bd. v. Bannercraft Clothing Co., 415 U.S. 1, 24 (1974); McKart v. United States, 395 U.S. 185, 193 (1969). In a FOIA case, a plaintiff must exhaust the administrative appeal process set forth in 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A) before seeking judicial review of a FOIA denial. See, e.g., Wilbur v. CIA, 355 F.3d 675, 677 (D.C. Cir. 2004); Hidalgo v. FBI, 344 F.3d 1256, 1258 (D.C. Cir. 2003); Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 61-62 (D.C. Cir. 1990). Defendant*fn2 contends that plaintiff filed no administrative appeal regarding defendant's responses, although defendant's letters to plaintiff informed him of his administrative remedies. (Hardy Decl. ¶¶ 7-15, 22, 24.)

Plaintiff does not dispute these contentions. Nonetheless, he argues that he exhausted administrative remedies constructively, either because an administrative appeal would have been futile or because the FBI failed to respond within the time allotted in 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(C). (Pl.'s Opp. at 2-3.) Plaintiff fails, however, to allege any facts that demonstrate futility, nor may he rely on the fact that the agency failed to find any documents after conducting its search.*fn3 As for the FBI's failure to provide a timely response, constructive exhaustion ceases to offer a basis for judicial action once an agency actually responds. Oglesby, 920 F.2d at 61, 63-64. Because the FBI responded adequately*fn4 to plaintiff's first ...

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