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Kurdyukov v. United States Coast Guard

September 29, 2008

SERGIY KURDYUKOV, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES COAST GUARD, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter is before the Court on the defendant's motion for summary judgment. Having considered the motion, the plaintiff's opposition, and the entire record of this case, the Court grants the motion in part and denies it in part without prejudice.

I. BACKGROUND

On December 27, 2006, the plaintiff submitted a request to the United States Coast Guard ("Coast Guard") under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), see 5 U.S.C. § 552 (2006). See Complaint ("Compl.") at 5 (page number designated by the Court). The plaintiff's FOIA request sought "all records, documents, and information [it has] in [its] files pertaining to [the plaintiff] or mentioning [his] name and the Motor Vessel 'CHINA BREEZE' registered in Panama." Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s Mem."), Declaration of Joseph Kramek ("Kramek Decl."), Attachment ("Attach.") A (December 27, 2006 Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Request). Specifically, the plaintiff requested:

(1) All the documents from the Government of Panama authorizing the U.S. Coast Guard to stop[,] board and search the M/V CHINA BREEZE.

(2) All the documents from the Government of Panama authorizing the U.S. Coast Guard to detain the M/V CHINA BREEZE on behalf of the Government of Panama.

(3) All the documents from the Government of Panama authorizing the U.S. Coast Guard to remain on board the M/V CHINA BREEZE and escort the vessel to a U.S. port to conduct a dockside boarding.

(4) All the documents showing the authorization from the Government of Panama to transfer its jurisdiction for prosecution to the United States when the M/V CHINA BREEZE entered U.S. waters.

Id., Attach. A at 1. Staff at the Coast Guard's Office of Law Enforcement assigned the request a tracking number, CG FOIA 07-0627. Id. ¶ 3; see Def.'s Mem., Declaration of Zsatique L. Ferrell ("Ferrell Decl."), Enclosure ("Encl.") A (August 1, 2007 letter from Z.L. Ferrell, FOIA Specialist, Office of Law Enforcement).

Searches of files maintained by the Data Administration Division of the Office of Investigations and Analysis and the Coast Guard's Seventh District and Eighth District Legal Offices yielded no responsive records. Def.'s Mem., Kramek Decl. ¶¶ 5-6, 14-15. However, located in the Office of Law Enforcement was "a spreadsheet containing annual statistical information on drug interdiction operations," including "a 1999 entry containing one row of several columns of information pertaining to the M/V CHINA BREEZE." Id. ¶ 8. The Coast Guard released to the plaintiff the spreadsheet entry pertaining to the M/V CHINA BREEZE in its entirety and redacted from the spreadsheet all information pertaining to other vessels. Id. ¶ 9. In addition, a search of a law enforcement electronic database in use between 1991 and 2000 yielded eight pages of "data in a readable format [containing] information specific to the M/V CHINA BREEZE," all of which were released to the plaintiff in their entirety at the Coast Guard's discretion. Id. ¶ 16. Lastly, the Coast Guard's Office of Intelligence and Criminal Investigations located "one 1999 electronic data entry titled 'CGIS Case Update Form' and an Intelligence Information Report (IIR), both responsive to [the plaintiff's] FOIA request." Id. ¶ 17. Both were released to the plaintiff in redacted form. Id. ¶¶ 18-19.

In this action, the plaintiff alleges that the Coast Guard has refused to disclose the information he requests and thus has violated the FOIA. Compl. at 5. He demands release of all the requested records and an award of costs and attorney fees. Id.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment in a FOIA Case

The Court may grant a motion for summary judgment if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits or declarations, 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 the 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 or declarations may be accepted as true unless the opposing party submits his own affidavits or declarations 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 they 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); see also Hertzberg v. Veneman, 273 F. Supp. 2d 67, 74 (D.D.C. 2003). 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. The Coast Guard's Searches for Responsive Records

"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)); Campbell v. United States Dep't of Justice, 164 F.3d 20, 27 (D.C. Cir. 1998). The agency bears the burden of showing that its search was reasonably 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 explaining in reasonable detail the scope and method of the agency's search. Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 126 (D.C. Cir. 1982). In the absence of contrary evidence, such affidavits or declarations are sufficient to demonstrate an agency's compliance with the FOIA. Id. at 127. However, if the record "leaves substantial doubt as to the sufficiency of the search, summary judgment for the agency is not proper." Truitt v. Dep't of State, 897 F.2d at 542.

It appears that the Office of Claims and Litigation (CG-0945) at the Coast Guard's Washington, D.C. Headquarters coordinated the processing of the plaintiff's FOIA request. The defendant declares that "[a] reasonably thorough, in-depth search of all files and records where the records requested by [the plaintiff] could have been found or [that the Coast Guard] would reasonably expect to find was conducted by the [Coast Guard] between July 2007 and October 2007 where various electronic and physical databases were searched." Def.'s Mem., Kramek Decl. ¶ 20. According to the defendant, there are "no other [known] offices or electronic databases within the [Coast Guard] where these records, if they exist, are likely to be found." Id.

1. The Office of Information Management (CG-611)

The Management Programs and Policy Division of the Office of Information Management (CG-611) at the Coast Guard's Washington, D.C. Headquarters "maintains a physical/manual record and electronic database of all FOIA requests that were either (1) sent by the requester directly to CG-611 and, in turn, assigned to another [Coast Guard] unit for processing; or (2) sent by the requester to another [Coast Guard] unit and subsequently forwarded to [Headquarters] for processing." Def.'s Mem., Declaration of Robin D. Ouellette ("Ouellette Decl.") ΒΆ 2. The Coast Guard unit to which a FOIA request is assigned "processes the FOIA request and conducts the searches for responsive records and documents." Id. Such searches may include "communicating and cooperating with other [Coast Guard] offices to acquire records which might be voluminous or ...


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