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Zavala v. Drug Enforcement Administration

November 4, 2009

RAUL S. ZAVALA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman United States District Judge

OPINION

This matter came before the Court on defendant's motion for summary judgment. The Court carefully considered the papers filed by the parties and granted defendant's motion for summary judgment by Order issued on September 30, 2009. This Opinion explains the reasoning behind that Order.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff brings this action against the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA"), a component of the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ"), under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552.

A. FOIA Request to the DEA

On January 5, 2008, plaintiff submitted a FOIA request to the DEA for "all records submitted to the DEA relating to an investigation commenced on or about April 28, 2005, in particular[,] Reports of Investigation dated April 29, December 2, and December 19, 2005." Compl. ¶ 5; see Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Declaration of Michael G. Seidel ("Seidel Decl."), Ex. A (FOIA Request) at 1, 2.*fn1 The request mentioned a criminal case in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, Seidel Decl., Ex. A at 1, and generally it sought "any and all... documents with information directly or indirectly related to" plaintiff. Id. at 2. Although the DEA had acknowledged receipt of the request and assigned it a tracking number (08-0617-P), as of the date this case was filed, plaintiff had not "received [any] other written response to his request." Compl. ¶ 8.

B. Referral to the DEA from the EOUSA

On January 5, 2008, plaintiff submitted a separate FOIA request to the Executive Office for United States Attorneys ("EOUSA"), and the EOUSA referred to the DEA "251 pages of potentially responsive material in the U.S. Attorney's Office files... for direct response to plaintiff." Seidel Decl. ¶ 8 & Ex. D (December 3, 2008 memorandum from W.G. Stewart, II, Assistant Director, Freedom of Information & Privacy Staff, EOUSA, regarding Request No. 08-1639, and enclosures). The DEA assigned it a tracking number (09-0282). Seidel Decl. ¶ 9 and Ex. E (January 29, 2009 letter from K.L. Myrick, Chief, Operations Unit, FOI/Records Management Section, DEA). "[P]laintiff's... FOIA request [to the] EOUSA (also dated January 5, 2008) was virtually identical to his request to the DEA[,]" Seidel Decl. ¶ 8, and the DEA's Administrative Law Section ("CCA") processed the requests together. Id. ¶ 10.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment in FOIA Case

The Court may grant a motion for summary judgment "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating an 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 may be accepted as true unless the opposing party submits his own affidavits, declarations or documentary evidence to the contrary. Neal v. Kelly, 963 F.2d 453, 456 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

"FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment." Defenders of Wildlife v. United States Border Patrol, 623 F. Supp. 2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009) (citations omitted). In a FOIA case, the Court may grant summary judgment based on the information provided in an agency's supporting 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 DEA's Search for Responsive Records Was Adequate

Upon receiving a request under the FOIA, the agency must search its records for responsive documents. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A). "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.'" Valencia-Lucena 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)); see also 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 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 that explain 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. 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; see also Valencia-Lucena v. United States Coast Guard, 180 F.3d at 326.

DEA staff "broadly construed" plaintiff's FOIA requests as seeking "any and all investigative information that referenced or related to him," Seidel Decl. ¶ 12, and determined that records of this nature were "reasonably likely to be found in investigative files contained in the DEA Investigative Reporting and Filing System (IFRS)[.]" Id. ¶ 13.*fn2

The DEA IFRS "contains all administrative, general, and investigative files compiled by DEA for law enforcement purposes." Seidel Decl. ¶ 13. "The DEA Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Information System (NADDIS) is the index to and the practical means by which DEA retrieves investigative reports and information from IFRS." Id. ¶ 14. NADDIS "points to investigative files and particular DEA Reports of Investigation (ROI), DEA Form-6 or other documents" which contain information regarding a particular subject of investigation. Id. An individual is "indexed and identified in NADDIS by [his] name, Social Security Number, and/or date of birth." Id. Using the information plaintiff provided with his request, including his Social Security number and the date and place of birth, DEA staff conducted NADDIS queries in February 2008 and January 2009. Each search produced the same result: one subject, RAUL SANCHEZ ZAVALA, who was arrested in Spokane, Washington on April 28, 2005, for delivery of methamphetamine. Id. ¶ 15. This individual was indexed in NADDIS under number 6082390, and was associated with investigative file number RH-04-0039. Id.

The DEA Resident Office in Spokane, Washington maintained investigative file number RH-04-0039. Seidel Decl. ¶ 16. Its staff "conducted searches for responsive records from file number RH-04-0039" and compared the documents contained therein to documents contained in the EOUSA referral. Id. Where necessary, CCA staff "coordinated with the U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Washington, to release documents directly to plaintiff in this action in lieu of returning select documents back to EOUSA for reply to plaintiff." Id.*fn3 The DEA identified 285 pages of responsive material, representing the results of both the DEA's searches and the EOUSA's referral. Seidel Decl. ¶¶ 17, 56. After having identified duplicate pages, the DEA released 108 pages in full, released 102 pages in part, and withheld 75 pages in full. Id. ¶ 17.

Plaintiff's sole challenge to the adequacy of the DEA's search for responsive records appears to be its failure to disclose two documents: (1) a document plaintiff signed "[o]n or about the months of September or October of 2005, and in the presence of Plaintiff's former trial attorney," Decl. In Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Decl.") ¶ 1; and (2) one ROI "prepared on or about April 28, 2005, hours or days immediately after Plaintiff's arrest" by Agent Joseph Pence. Id. ¶ 42.*fn4

It is settled law that the results of a search do not determine whether the search is adequate. See Hornbostel v. United States Dep't of the Interior, 305 F. Supp. 2d 21, 28 (D.D.C. 2003) (stating that "[t]he focus of the adequacy inquiry is not on the results" of the search). "[T]he issue to be resolved is not whether there might exist any other documents possibly responsive to the request, but rather whether the search for those documents was adequate." Weisberg v. Dep't of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344, 1351 (D.C. Cir. 1983) (citing Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d at 128). The DEA's inability to locate all of the records plaintiff desires does not defeat summary judgment so long as the DEA "establish[es] that [its staff] located no records responsive to plaintiff's request after a reasonable search using 'methods reasonably expected to produce the information requested.'" Davidson v. Envtl. Prot. Agency, 121 F. Supp. 2d 38, 39 (D.D.C. 2000) (quoting Oglesby v. United States Dep't of Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990)); see Steinberg v. ...


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