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Elliott v. United States Dep't of Agriculture

May 1, 2007

DAMON ELLIOTT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, 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.*fn1 Having considered the motion, plaintiff's opposition, and the record of this case, the Court will grant the motion in part, and deny the motion in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff alleges that he submitted a request for information to the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), see 5 U.S.C. § 552. Compl. at 1. Review of the record reflects that plaintiff submitted several FOIA requests to various officials seeking blueprints for all buildings within the USDA's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center ("BARC"), and, more specifically, blueprints for Building 022, a residence within BARC. See Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of the United States Department of Agriculture's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s Mot."), Declaration of Stasia A.M. Hutchison ("Hutchison Decl."), ¶¶ 3, 10, 12 & Ex. A (FOIA Requests).

Plaintiff's FOIA requests were forwarded to the USDA's Agricultural Research Service ("ARS"). Hutchison Decl. ¶¶ 3, 10. By letter dated December 29, 2005, the ARS denied plaintiff's request for blueprints of all buildings on the BARC. Compl., Ex. 1 (December 29, 2005 letter from S.A.M. Hutchison, Freedom of Information Act Coordinator, ARS) (exhibit number designated by the Court). Although a search yielded blueprints for 375 buildings, the USDA withheld them all under Exemption 2. Hutchison Decl. ¶ 7. In a separate letter on that same date, defendant notified plaintiff that no records responsive to his request for blueprints of Building 022 were located. Compl., Ex. 2 (second December 29, 2005 letter from S.A.M. Hutchison) (exhibit number designated by the Court). Both of these determinations were upheld on administrative appeal. See Hutchison Decl., ¶¶ 9, 18 & Ex. A (February 8, 2006 letter from S. Hutchison and March 1, 2006 letter from A. Betschart, Acting Administrator, ARS).

In this action, plaintiff demands disclosure of all the requested records. Compl. at 2.

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, 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). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issues 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 that contradict the movant's assertions. Neal v. Kelly, 963 F.2d 453, 456 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (citing Lewis v. Faulkner, 689 F.2d 100, 102 (7th Cir. 1982)).

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) (citing Weisberg v. United States Dep't of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984), reh'g denied, 763 F.2d 1436 (D.C. Cir. 1985)). The Court may award summary judgment based solely upon the information provided in affidavits or declarations when the affidavits or declarations 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."*fn2 Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). 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. & Exch. 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. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

A plaintiff "may generally seek judicial review of his FOIA request only after he has exhausted all administrative remedies." Pollack v. Dep't of Justice, 49 F.3d 115, 118 (4th Cir. 1995); Oglesby v. United States Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 61-62 (D.C. Cir. 1990). A FOIA suit is subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure if a plaintiff fails to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to initiating a lawsuit. Hidalgo v. Fed. Bureau of Investigation, 344 F.3d 1256, 1260 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (remanding with instruction for district court to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) for failure to exhaust); see Dettmann v. United States Dep't of Justice, 802 F.2d 1472, 1477 (D.C. Cir. 1986). However, the District of Columbia Circuit instructs that, while exhaustion is "a jurisprudential doctrine, [and] failure to exhaust precludes judicial review," it is not a jurisdictional barrier to such review. Hidalgo, 344 F.3d at 1258. The Court can address the merits of a case notwithstanding a plaintiff's failure to exhaust if it determines that the purposes and policies underlying the exhaustion requirement would not be undermined by reaching the merits of the case. See Wilbur v. Central Intelligence Agency, 355 F.3d 675, 677 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (concluding that policies underlying the exhaustion requirement were served where requester pursued administrative review process four years late, and agency accepted, processed and issued final decision on appeal)

FOIA requires that an agency "make a determination with respect to any appeal within twenty days (excepting Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays) after the receipt of such appeal." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(ii); 7 C.F.R. § 1.14(c) (requiring notification to requester of USDA's determination on appeal within 20 working days excepting weekends and holidays). The date of receipt of an appeal is "the date it is ...


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