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Ramstack v. Dep't of the Army

March 24, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Document Nos.: 8, 9, 15




This case comes before the court on the defendants' motion to dismiss and for partial summary judgment, and the plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment. The pro se plaintiff, Thomas Ramstack, brings suit against multiple defendants*fn1 under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, alleging that they improperly withheld records and failed to conduct adequate searches. The defendants, specifically the U.S. Department of the Army ("Army"), the Central Intelligence Agency ("CIA"), and the U.S. Department of State ("DOS"), move to dismiss, contending that the plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. The defendants also assert that they conducted reasonable searches in response to the plaintiff's requests. Because the plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies with respect to certain requests, the court grants in part and denies in part the defendants' motion to dismiss. Furthermore, because the agencies conducted adequate searches as to the plaintiff's remaining requests, the court grants the defendants' motion for partial summary judgment as to those claims and denies the plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment.


A. Factual History

Beginning in the early 1980s and continuing until 2008, the plaintiff made thirteen FOIA requests for documents with the Army, the CIA and the DOS to gain a better understanding of his service in the Army, especially with respect to brain damage he allegedly sustained during his service. Compl. at 3. The plaintiff maintains that he "appears to have suffered from military service-related injuries, including poisoning that left him with toxic encephalopathy," and that his "memory lapses and distortions [have] left him unable to remember the exact nature of his service to the U.S. Army or the cause of his brain damage." Id. The plaintiff also states that his brain damage has "interfered extensively with his employment, social life, income and personal well-being." Id.

1. Requests to the DOS

In March and June of 1987, the plaintiff made two Privacy Act requests to the DOS. Defs.' Mot., Ex. E ("Grafeld Decl.") ¶ 4.*fn2 Although the files containing the documentation of the searches performed in response to his requests were destroyed pursuant to DOS regulations in 1994 and 1995, available data in the DOS tracking systems indicate that searches conducted in response to each request yielded no responsive records. Id. On January 5, 2008, the plaintiff made a third request*fn3 to the DOS for "all records or documents relevant to his service in the U.S. military or service to any other government agency." Id. ¶ 5. In response, the DOS notified the plaintiff by letter that he was required to provide a more detailed description of the records requested and include a notarized signature or a signature under penalty of perjury pursuant to 22 C.F.R. § 171.32(a)-(b).*fn4 Id. ¶¶ 5-7. After the plaintiff failed to provide the requested materials, the DOS closed his 2008 request pursuant to Department regulations. Id. ¶ 11.

2. Requests to the CIA

The plaintiff also submitted five FOIA requests to the CIA over nearly two decades. Defs.' Mot., Ex. D ("Nelson Decl.") ¶¶ 15, 16, 19 n.4. In 1988, the plaintiff filed a request for records, but no responsive documents were located. Id. ¶ 19 n.4. The file containing the correspondence regarding the searches performed in response to the 1988 request has since been destroyed pursuant to the CIA's records maintenance procedure. Id. The plaintiff then filed a request for documents containing information about himself on December 14, 1992. Id. ¶ 15. The CIA processed the request under FOIA and the Privacy Act and notified the plaintiff on February 23, 1993 that after conducting thorough searches in its databases, it was unable to locate any responsive records. Id. & Attach. 2.

The plaintiff submitted two more FOIA requests for information or records about himself in 2003 -- one on July 6 and another on December 8. Nelson Decl. ¶¶ 16-18. After receiving the plaintiff's July 6 request, the CIA informed him that CIA regulations require that he provide a notarized statement containing additional personal and contact information within forty-five days. Id. ¶ 17. When the CIA did not receive a response from the plaintiff within the allotted time, it closed his request. Id. Regarding his December 8 request, the CIA again conducted a search that yielded no responsive documents. Id. ¶¶ 18-19. The plaintiff filed an administrative appeal, and the CIA, after confirming that it could not locate any responsive records, denied the appeal. Id. ¶¶ 22-25.

On February 27, 2007, the plaintiff submitted his final request to the CIA for "copies of all information regarding himself from June 1973 to the present." Id. ¶ 26. The CIA conducted an updated search for relevant documents, but again failed to locate any responsive records. Id. ¶¶ 26-28. The plaintiff appealed, and in June 2007, the CIA informed the plaintiff by letter that it had considered his appeal, but had been unable to locate any responsive documents. Id. ¶¶ 31-33.

3. Requests to the Army

On July 11, 2006, the plaintiff filed his first request to the Army for records pertaining to his service in the early 1970s. Defs.' Mot., Ex. B ("Tatum Decl.") ¶ 8. After conducting searches in five databases, however, Army personnel were unable to locate any records of the plaintiff's service in the Army. Id. ¶¶ 11-19. The plaintiff made four almost identical FOIA requests between January and February 2008 to the Department of the Army Freedom of Information Act ("DA FOIA") office for records related to his military service, including documents pertaining to any injuries sustained during service. Defs.' Mot., Ex. C ("Hargrove Decl.") ¶¶ 7-10 & Attachs. 1-4. The plaintiff made two of the four requests on January 5, 2008 -- one e-mail request and one written request. Id. ¶¶ 7-8. Personnel at the DA FOIA office sent the plaintiff an e-mail on January 10, 2008 informing him that their office did not maintain Army records. Id. ¶ 11. The e-mail also provided him with information on how to contact the National Personnel Records Center, where the Army stores records of former active duty personnel. Id. Because the plaintiff's other two requests, made on February 21 and 23, 2008 were nearly identical to the January 5, 2008 requests, the DA FOIA personnel re-sent their January 10, 2008 e-mail response to the plaintiff. Id. ¶ 12.

In August 2006, the plaintiff received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ("Veterans Affairs"), warning him of a possible computer security breach that could affect him and other veterans. Compl., Ex. B. The plaintiff alleges that when he spoke with the clerk at Veterans Affairs, the clerk looked up his records using his social security ...

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