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Hall v. United States Dep't of Justice

May 14, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge


Plaintiffs Donald Hall and Sheryl Hall bring this action against the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ"), alleging that it failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. §§ 552 et seq. Before this court is DOJ's motion for summary judgment [#10]. Upon consideration of the motion, the opposition thereto, and the record of this case, the court concludes that the motion should be denied for the reasons that follow.


Sheryl Hall ("Hall") was employed with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ("ATF") as a supervisory computer specialist. In this capacity, she processed invoices for equipment provided by Unisys, a contractor. ATF received allegations that Unisys was overpaid, which caused ATF to conduct an investigation. During this investigation, ATF uncovered allegations of misconduct involving Hall. ATF separately investigated Hall, compiled a Report of Investigation, and reprimanded her.

Hall and her husband, Donald Hall (collectively "plaintiffs"), submitted a FOIA request seeking disclosure of the Report of Investigation and related documents. DOJ released the documents in two batches -- collectively, 135 pages. Portions of these documents were redacted pursuant to FOIA Exemption 5's deliberative process privilege, as well as Exemptions 2 and 6. Dissatisfied with the document release, plaintiffs filed an administrative appeal. DOJ's document release was affirmed, and plaintiffs filed the present action. DOJ now moves for summary judgment, asserting that it properly responded to the Halls' FOIA request. Along with its motion, DOJ has submitted a Vaughn Index and affidavits which describe DOJ's redactions. Plaintiffs oppose this motion and have submitted, under seal, copies of the redacted documents at issue.


Agency decisions to withhold or disclose information under FOIA are reviewed de novo by this court, and FOIA places the burden on "the agency to sustain its action." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). The agency may meet this burden by submitting affidavits that describe the withheld material in reasonable detail and explain why it falls within the claimed FOIA exemptions. See Summers v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 140 F.3d 1077, 1080 (D.C. Cir. 1998). Any affidavits or Vaughn indices submitted by the agency must "disclose as much information as possible without thwarting the exemption's purpose." King v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 830 F.2d 210, 224 (D.C. Cir. 1987). Where the pleadings and affidavits show that there is no genuine issue of fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment is the appropriate mechanism for resolving FOIA disclosure disputes. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. EPA, 856 F.2d 309, 313-14 (D.C. Cir. 1988).


Opposing DOJ's motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs assert (1) that DOJ's Vaughn Index and affidavits are not sufficientlydetailed and (2) that DOJ did not properly apply Exemptions 5 and 6.*fn1 The court shall address each argument in turn.

A. Sufficiency of Vaughn Index and Agency Affidavits

Contending that DOJ's affidavits and Vaughn Index are insufficient, plaintiffs assert that DOJ neither describes the redacted documents with requisite specificity nor correlates its redactions with particular claims of exemption. Plaintiffs are correct.

When an agency redacts documents pursuant to FOIA, it must submit a"sufficiently detailed" description of each redacted document and an explanation of the reasons for the redactions. Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820, 827 (D.C. Cir. 1973). To meet this burden, an agency may submit a Vaughn Index. Id. (creating a "system of itemizing and indexing"). Instead of a Vaughn Index, an agency may submit affidavits supporting the invoked exemptions. See Campbell v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 164 F.3d 20, 30 (D.C. Cir. 1998). The Vaughn Index and/or affidavits must be specific enough to permit a reviewing court to engage in a meaningful review of the agency's decision. See Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of Army, 79 F.3d 1172, 1176 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

DOJ's Vaughn Index and affidavits are lengthy -- the Vaughn Index alone is eighteen pages. Yet, for all its prolixity, DOJ does not sufficiently describe the contents of pages 110-132, which are e-mails that are redacted almost in their entirety. Instead, DOJ uses broad categorical descriptions to describe these e-mails. For example, DOJ broadly states that these e-mails discuss "internal information related to infrastructure," or are "inter-agency document[s]." Vaughn Ind. 14. Such descriptions are not sufficiently detailed.*fn2

Furthermore, DOJ does not sufficiently correlate its redactions with particular claims of exemption. FOIA requires that DOJ correlate the claimed exemptions to the document portions to which they apply. See Morley v. CIA, 508 F.3d 1108, 1122-23 (D.C. Cir. 2007). That is, "a court must be able to know the nature of the contents of a specific redaction and associate that redaction with a specific exemption." Judicial Watch, Inc. v. FBI, 2006 WL 3334996, *6 (D.D.C. Nov. 16, 2006). DOJ fails to correlate exemptions with the document portions to which they apply. For example, the e-mails ...

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