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James v. Drug Enforcement Administration

September 28, 2009


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

Re Document Nos.: 13, 15



Plaintiff Shanell James, a federal prisoner, brought this action pro se under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, and the Privacy Act, id. § 552a, against the Drug Enforcement Administration ("the DEA" or "the defendant"), a component of the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ"), and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE"), a component of the Department of Homeland Security.*fn1 The defendant now moves for summary judgment. The plaintiff opposes the motion. Because the record establishes that there are no material issues in genuine dispute with respect to the defendant's compliance with the requirements of the FOIA and the Privacy Act, the court grants the defendant's motion for summary judgment. In addition, the court denies the plaintiff's motion for an in camera inspection of the requested documents.


On May 25, 2003, a U.S. Customs Service agent arrested the plaintiff for attempting to smuggle approximately 2.4 pounds of heroin pellets into the country. See Compl., Ex. 5 at 2; see also James v. Customs & Border Prot., 549 F. Supp. 2d 1, 5 (D.D.C. 2008).*fn2 The plaintiff had arrived in Miami, Florida via Curacao with the drugs concealed inside his body. See id. The incident resulted in the plaintiff's conviction pursuant to a plea agreement, see Order, United States v. James, Criminal Case No. 03-20452 (S.D. Fla. Oct. 21, 2003), and he was sentenced to fourteen years in prison followed by five years of supervised release, see Judgment, United States v. James (Jan. 27, 2004).

Following his conviction, the plaintiff sought records related to his criminal investigation and prosecution, including a "Laboratory Analysis Report" of the heroin pellets seized from his body. Compl. ¶¶ 3-5, 12 & Ex. 5. Toward that end, he directed a FOIA request to the DOJ in November 2004. See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Decl. of Leila I. Wassom ("Wassom Decl.") ¶ 6 & Ex. A. The DOJ forwarded the request to the defendant, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") and the Executive Office for United States Attorneys ("EOUSA"). Wassom Decl.¶¶ 7-9 & Ex. F. The plaintiff also communicated directly with the defendant regarding his request. Id.

The defendant determined that the records most likely to be responsive to the plaintiff's request would be found in the defendant's Investigative Reporting Filing System ("IRFS"), and that lab analysis records were most likely to be found in the defendant's Functional File System File No. 901 ("Laboratory Case Files"). Id. ¶¶ 21-22. The defendant concluded that no other system of files was likely to contain responsive information. Id. ¶ 23. The defendant searched its IRFS index by using the plaintiff's name, social security number and date of birth as search terms, but did not locate any files containing information relating to the plaintiff. Id. ¶¶ 24-26. The defendant could not search its Laboratory Case Files because to do so, it needed to know the file, exhibit or laboratory number of the drug analysis sought, and the plaintiff had not provided that information. Id. ¶ 27. Accordingly, the defendant notified the plaintiff that it had found no records responsive to his request. Id. ¶ 11. The plaintiff appealed to the DOJ's Office of Information and Privacy ("OIP"), which affirmed the defendant's determination that it had no responsive records. Id. ¶ 14 & Ex. H.

Subsequently, the EOUSA forwarded one page -- a curriculum vitae of one of the defendant's forensic chemists -- to the defendant. Id. ¶ 15. The defendant then notified the plaintiff that it had received the curriculum vitae, but that the defendant was withholding the document in full pursuant to FOIA exemptions (b)(6), (b)(7)(C) and (b)(7)(F), which relate to the privacy or safety of third parties. Id. ¶¶ 16-17 & Ex. P. In December 2007, the plaintiff submitted an appeal to the OIP challenging the defendant's decision to withhold the curriculum vitae. Along with his appeal, the plaintiff included new information indicating that the DEA's Southeast Laboratory had conducted the analysis of the heroin and providing the corresponding laboratory number and file number. Id. ¶ 18 & Ex. L. The OIP denied the plaintiff's appeal, explaining that the curriculum vitae was unrelated to his request for a lab analysis report. Id. ¶ 20. This lawsuit followed.

In the course of defending itself against this litigation, the defendant conducted an additional search based on the new information the plaintiff had provided in his appeal and forwarded the plaintiff's request for the lab report to the Southeast Laboratory. Id. ¶¶ 29-30. The search yielded seventeen pages of responsive records. Those records were released to the defendant, but the names of DEA laboratory personnel and ICE Special Agents were redacted from the documents pursuant to FOIA exemptions (b)(7)(C) and (b)(7)(F). Id. ¶¶ 30-31 & Exs. O, P.

The defendant has filed a motion for summary judgment, supported by an agency declaration averring that it has searched for responsive records in the only two systems of files likely to contain information responsive to the plaintiff's requests, and that portions of the responsive documents were properly withheld under FOIA exemptions (b)(6), (b)(7)(C) and (b)(7)(F). The plaintiff has filed an opposition to the motion, contending that the cited exemptions are "in error." Pl.'s Opp'n at 4-5.


A. Legal Standard for Summary Judgment in a FOIA Case

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, a motion for summary judgment must be granted if the pleadings and evidence on file show that there is no genuine issue of material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). In considering whether there is a triable issue of fact, a court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Id. at 255. The party opposing a motion for summary judgment, however, "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial," id. at 248, that would permit a reasonable jury to find in his favor, Laningham v. U.S. Navy,813 F.2d 1236, 1241 (D.C. Cir. 1987). The non-moving party must do more than simply "show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Moreover, "any factual assertions in the movant's ...

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