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Elliott v. United States Dep't of Agriculture

August 24, 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 to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment.*fn1 Having considered the motion, plaintiff's opposition, and the entire record of the case, the Court will grant summary judgment for defendant.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff brings this civil action against the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), see 5 U.S.C. § 552. See Compl. at 1. On November 29, 2006, plaintiff submitted the following FOIA request:*fn2 I want to purchase a copy of the "Notice of such Acceptance Document" ceding of jurisdiction with the Governor of the State of Maryland, and the report of the Attorney General of the United States that a perfect title had been secured over the lands of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville[,] Md. pursuant to Title 40 U.S.C. § 255.

Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summ. J. (Def.'s Mot."), Declaration of Stasia Hutchison ("Hutchison Decl."), Ex. 1 (Nov. 29, 2006 FOIA Request) (emphasis in original). He sent the request to the attention of the Freedom of Information Act Officer at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service ("ARS"). Hutchison Decl. ¶ 4. On December 5, 2006, plaintiff submitted to the USDA a separate FOIA request which stated:

TITLE 40 U.S.C. § 255 PROVIDES: . . . "that acceptance by the Federal Government of exclusive or concurrent jurisdiction cannot be presumed but must be demonstrated by filing a notice with the Legislature of the State of Maryland and the report of the Attorney General of the United States that a perfect title had been secured" . . . over the land of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.

The patron want to purchase title, pursuant to this statute.

Compl., Attach. (Dec. 5, 2006 FOIA Request) (capitalization, quotation marks, ellipses and emphasis in original).*fn3

The USDA's initial response referred to both requests. First, regarding the certificate of acceptance, the USDA referred to its January 27, 2003 response to plaintiff's prior FOIA request "for the 'Certificate of Acceptance' of Legislative Jurisdiction pursuant to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, and Title 40 U.S.C. [§] 255,'" and repeated that the "ARS does not maintain a copy of this certificate." Hutchinson Decl., Ex. 3 (Dec. 29, 2006 letter from S.A.M. Hutchison, FOIA Coordinator, ARS) at 1. Its response again suggested that plaintiff request a copy of this certificate from the land records office of Prince George's County, Maryland. Id.

Regarding the Attorney General report, the USDA advised plaintiff that it maintained "approximately 2, 200 pages that contain the Attorney General reports along with the supporting documentation." Hutchison Decl., Ex. 3 at 1. It estimated that fees for conducting a search and making copies totaled $480, half of which plaintiff must pay in advance. Id. On March 8, 2007, the USDA received a check for $240, and released in full 2,036 pages of records, including the requested title and supporting documents.*fn4 Id. ¶¶ 9-12.

Plaintiff treats the USDA's "incomplete response . . . as a denial of his F.O.I.A. request and seek[s] judicial review." Compl. at 2. He demands release of "a copy of the Title pursuant to Title 40 U.S.C. § 255" and, if he prevails, an award of fees associated with this action. Id.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment in a FOIA Case

A motion for summary judgment should be granted 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 ...


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