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Short v. United States Army Corps of Engineers

January 6, 2009

JAMES R. SHORT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

James R. Short sought records from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the "Army Corps" or "Corps") under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552. The Army Corps released documents to Mr. Short and now moves for summary judgment. Mr. Short opposes, alleging that the search and the affidavits describing the search must be inadequate because he speculates that the Corps has other documents it did not release to him. As explained below, mere speculation is insufficient to rebut the declarations filed by the Corps. Summary judgment therefore will be granted in favor of the Army Corps.

I. FACTS

Mr. Short's FOIA request arises from his frustration in attempting to change a wetlands designation on property he seeks to develop. Mr. Short is a real estate developer who is involved in developing Ocean Pines, a 3500 acre residential community in Worcester County, Maryland. In 1994, Ocean-Pines LLC - Balfour Holdings, Inc, applied for a permit to develop various sections of Ocean Pines, including Section 15B. As part of the permit process, a conservation easement was placed on Section 15B and a Jurisdictional Determination*fn1 was issued for this Section. In 2002, Mr. Short filed an application with the Army Corps for a Jurisdictional Determination that certain features in Section 15B, including Lot 64, were not wetlands. Because the Corps failed to act on his application and he allegedly was unable to obtain information regarding the processing of the application,*fn2 on January 16, 2007, Mr. Short submitted a FOIA request for documents related to Lot 64 in Section 15B as follows:

RE: JD Determination - Tracking No. 20036062

Dear Mr. Fraer: Thank you for speaking with me today. As discussed, this is a request made pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, et seq., as amended.

My firm represents Mr. James R. Short in connection with his joint application for a jurisdictional determination on a parcel of property located in Worchester [sic] County, Maryland. The JD application was first submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the Maryland Department of Environment on or about October 11, 2002. The JD application concerns a parcel located in Ocean Pines Section 15B, Lot 64, Tax Map 21, Parcel 68 (the "Parcel").*fn3

We hereby request that you provide us with copies of all documents in the possession, custody or control of the Corps with respect to the Parcel, including but not limited to any and all wetlands delineations, conservation easements, correspondence generated by the Corps in response to the JD application, and any internal memorandum or other documents generated by the Corp in connection with the JD application.

Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss or for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mot."), Ex. A ("Fraer Decl."), Ex. 2.

On February 1, 2007, Michael Fraer, the FOIA coordinator for the Corps' Baltimore District Regulatory Branch, wrote to Mr. Short indicating that a preliminary determination had been made to grant Mr. Short's FOIA request and Mr. Fraer forwarded the request to the Baltimore Branch. Fraer Decl., Ex. 2 & 3. The Baltimore Branch has custody and control over all regulatory permit matters for the State of Maryland, where Lot 64 is located, and thus the Baltimore Branch is the only location where the requested records could be located. Id. ¶ 9; Def.'s Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute ¶ 3. The request was misplaced for some time, but the Corps was reminded when Mr. Short filed this lawsuit on December 17, 2007. Def.'s Mot., Ex. B ("Gaffney-Smith Decl.") ¶ 3. The Corps then conducted its search and on January 4, 2008, released 438 pages of documents and 19 oversize drawings. The Corps did not withhold or redact any documents. Id. ¶¶ 7-8.*fn4

Mr. Short, through counsel, contacted the Corps charging that the Corps failed to produce certain documents. Pl.'s Facts, Ex. 13. In response, the Corps informed Mr. Short that all records possessed by the agency responsive to his request had been provided. Lorenz Decl. ¶¶ 15 & 16. The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment.*fn5

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment must be granted when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Moreover, summary judgment is properly granted against a party who "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion . . . fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor and accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. A nonmoving party, however, must establish more than "the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252.

FOIA cases are typically and appropriately decided on motions for summary judgment. Miscavige v. IRS, 2 F.3d 366, 368 (11th Cir. 1993); Rushford v. Civiletti, 485 F. Supp. 477, 481 n.13 (D.D.C. 1980).In a FOIA case, a court may award summary judgment solely on the basis of information provided by the agency in declarations when the declarations describe "the documents and the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstratethat the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and are not controverted by ...


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