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Elliott v. National Archives and Records Administration

December 21, 2006

DAMON ELLIOTT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION, 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 defendant's motion for summary judgment. Having considered the motion, plaintiff's opposition, and the record of this case, the Court will grant summary judgment for defendant.

I. BACKGROUND

In November 2005, plaintiff submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), see 5 U.S.C. § 552, to the National Archives and Records Administration ("NARA"). Compl. at 1. He sought a "copy of the Architecture Blue-print on (ALL) the Building that was constructed within/on the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland." Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s Mot."), Declaration of James J. Hastings ("Hastings Decl."), Ex. A (November 24, 2005 FOIA request) (emphasis in original). Although staff of the Civilian Records Unit of the Textual Archives Services Division located 11 boxes of records, including one box of blueprints, pertaining to the construction of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center ("BARC"), it "appear[ed] that all of the blueprints relate to road construction and surfacing." Hastings Decl., Ex. B (December 21, 2005 letter from G. Morris, Civilian Records, Textual Archives Services Division, NARA).

Plaintiff responded by narrowing his request to "Architectural Blue-prints on Building 22 within the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Md. 20705." Hastings Decl., Ex. C (November 29, 2005 letter to G. Morris) (emphasis in original). After a second search yielded no responsive records in the Textual Archives Services Division, staff forwarded plaintiff's request to NARA's Cartographic and Architectural Records Section of the Special Media Archives Services Division. Id. ¶¶ 12-13 & Ex. D (January 17, 2006 letter from G. Morris). A search of that section's records did not yield blueprints of BARC's Building 22. Id. ¶ 14 & Ex. E (January 30, 2006 letter from P. Dyson).

Plaintiff demands disclosure in full of the records he requested, "including the 1 box of blueprints" located in NARA's initial search. Compl. at 2.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

To obtain summary judgment in a FOIA action, an agency must show, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the requester, that there is no genuine issue of material fact with regard to the agency's compliance with the FOIA. Steinberg v. United States Dep't of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 551 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (quoting Weisberg v. United States Dep't of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984)). The Court may award summary judgment solely on the information provided in affidavits or declarations when they describe "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."*fn1 Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981).

B. NARA's Searches for Responsive Records Were Adequate

"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)). The agency is obligated to make "a good faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records, using methods which can be reasonably expected to produce the information requested." Oglesby v. United States Dep't of Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (citing Weisberg, 745 F.2d at 1485). An agency may meet its burden by providing an affidavit or declaration which sets forth "the search terms and the type of search performed, and averring that all files likely to contain responsive materials . . . were searched." Iturralde v. Comptroller of the Currency, 315 F.3d 311, 313-14 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (citing Valencia-Lucena, 180 F.3d at 326).

1. NARA's Searches in Response to Plaintiff's FOIA Request and Subsequent Correspondence

NARA's Special Access and FOIA Staff receive and process FOIA requests initially. Hastings Decl. ¶ 5. Each request is logged into a tracking system and is referred to the appropriate unit within the agency. Id. A staff member in that unit who works with the type of records requested is assigned to the request. Id. That person is responsible for searching NARA's holdings "using finding aids, often indexes or other paper documents that were provided by an agency with its records or created by NARA." Id.

Because plaintiff's FOIA request (Request No. NW-26985) pertained to textual records of a non-military agency, Special Access and FOIA Staff referred it to the Civilian Records Unit of the Textual Archives Services Division. Hastings Decl. ¶ 7. Staff located eleven boxes of records pertaining to construction of BARC. Id. ¶ 9. Only one of those boxes contained blueprints, but the "blueprints related to road construction and surfacing, not buildings." Id. Concluding that the ...


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