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Elliott v. United States Attorney General

November 2, 2006

DAMON ELLIOTT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES ATTORNEY GENERAL, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Having reviewed the motions and oppositions thereto, the Court will grant summary judgment for defendant.

I. BACKGROUND

In September 2001, plaintiff submitted a request for information pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), see 5 U.S.C. § 552, to the United States Attorney General. Complaint ("Compl.") at 1. He sought "a copy of the 'Notice of United States Acceptance' of jurisdiction Documents, over the Beltsville Agriculture Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland." Id. Plaintiff construed defendant's "fail[ure] to respond . . . within the time limits" set forth in 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6) as a denial of his request, and filed the instant civil action for disclosure in full of the requested information. Id. at 2.

Defendant found no record of having received plaintiff's September 2001 FOIA request.

Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss or for Summary Judgment, Declaration of Melanie Ann Pustay ("Pustay Decl.") ¶ 4. Initially defendant argued that dismissal of this action is warranted for plaintiff's failure to exhaust administrative remedies before filing the instant action. See id. ¶ 7. In response, plaintiff submitted with his summary judgment motion a copy of his request (with a certified mail return receipt) to show that he had sought: a copy of the Title indicating acceptance of such jurisdiction over the lands of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland.

Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Pl.'s Mot."), Ex. A (September 2001 FOIA Request).

Armed with a copy of plaintiff's FOIA request, staff of the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy ("OIP") conducted a search for responsive records in September 2006. Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and in Support of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss or for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s Mot."), Declaration of Tricia S. Wellman ("Wellman Decl.") ¶¶ 4-5.*fn1 No responsive records were located. Id. ¶ 5.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

The Court grants a motion for summary judgment if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Factual assertions in the moving party's affidavits may be accepted as true unless the opposing party submits his own affidavits or documentary evidence to the contrary. Neal v. Kelly, 963 F.2d 453, 456 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

In a FOIA case, the Court may grant summary judgment based on the information provided in affidavits or declarations when the 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).*fn2 Such affidavits or declarations are accorded "a presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted by 'purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents.'" SafeCard Servs., Inc. v. Sec. and Exhchange Comm'n, 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (quoting Ground Saucer Watch, Inc. v. Central Intelligence Agency, 692 F.2d 770, 771 (D.C. Cir. 1981)).

B. Adequacy of Search

"An agency fulfills its obligations under FOIA if it can demonstrate beyond material doubt that its search was 'reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.'" ValenciaLucena v. United States Coast Guard, 180 F.3d 321, 325 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (quoting Truitt v. Dep't of State, 897 F.2d 540, 542 (D.C. Cir. 1990)); see Campbell v. United States Dep't of Justice, 164 F.3d 20, 27 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (FOIA requires agency to conduct search using methods reasonably expected to produce requested information). The agency bears the burden of showing that its search was calculated to uncover all relevant documents. Steinberg v. United States Dep't of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 551 (D.C. Cir. 1994). To meet its burden, the agency may submit affidavits or declarations that explain in reasonable detail the scope and method of the agency's search. Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121 (D.C. Cir. 1982). In the absence of contrary evidence, such affidavits or ...


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