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Meza v. U.S. Dep't of Justice

June 25, 2010

ALFREDO MEZA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

In this action brought pro se under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, plaintiff challenges the responses of the Department of Justice ("DOJ") and the United States Coast Guard to his requests for records.*fn1 DOJ and the Coast Guard move separately for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions and the entire record, the Court will grant each motion and enter judgment for the defendants.

I. BACKGROUND

DOJ Records

By letter of May 20, 2008, plaintiff requested documents pertaining to the following:

1. . . . whether the United States . . . requested to the government of the Republic of Panama to stop, board and search the M/V Castor ship (Panamanian flagged vessel) on May 31, 1999. 2. . . . whether the government of the Republic of Panama have issued and/or statement(s) of No Objection authorizing the United States Coast Guard to escort the M/V Castor ship from the international waters at 20 miles off the Venezuelan coast to United States waters, then it[] could be escorted to Miami, Florida and to enforce the United States law; instead of Panamanian law. 3. . . . whether the government of Panama and/or Panamanian authorities have granted or consented their jurisdiction for my being prosecuted (tried) outside of the Panamanian territory in the above captioned [criminal] matter [in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida]. . . .

DOJ's Mot., Decl. of Vinay J. Jolly ("Jolly Decl.") [Dkt. No. 10-1], Ex. D. The Executive Office for United States Attorneys ("EOUSA"), a DOJ component, received the request on May 20, 2008, Jolly Decl. ¶ 4, and informed plaintiff by letter of August 26, 2009, that a search for responsive records conducted in the United States Attorneys Office for the Southern District of Florida (where plaintiff was prosecuted) located no responsive records. Jolly Decl. ¶ 13 & Ex. J. During the course of this litigation, which commenced with the filing of the complaint on August 20, 2009, defendant performed another search of that office, located records and, on October 15, 2009, released to plaintiff 25 unredacted pages of information. DOJ withheld eight pages in their entirety under FOIA exemptions 5, 6 and 7(C), see 5 U.S.C. § 552(b), and subsection (j)(2) of the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a. Id., Ex. M.

Coast Guard Records

Plaintiff made the same request set forth above to the Coast Guard by letter dated August 24, 2008. Coast Guard's Mot., Decl. of Stanley Fields ("Fields Decl.") [Dkt. No. 17-1], Attach. A. Coast Guard searches "between October 2008 and November 2008, and again in between September and October 2009" located no responsive agency records, but the Coast Guard did provide plaintiff "[t]he relevant contents of [] one personal file . . .," Fields Decl. ¶ 17, maintained by "one of the members involved in the enforcement action[,] id ¶ 15. The Coast Guard redacted third-party identifying information from the released pages under FOIA exemptions 6 and 7(C). Id. ¶ 16 and Vaughn index [Dkt. No. 17-4].

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate upon a showing 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). "[A] material fact is 'genuine' . . . if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party" on an element of the claim. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

The FOIA requires a federal agency to release all records responsive to a properly submitted request except those protected from disclosure by one or more of nine enumerated exemptions. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). The agency's disclosure obligations are triggered by its receipt of a request that "reasonably describes [the requested] records" and "is made in accordance with published rules stating the time, place, fees (if any), and procedures to be followed." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A). The FOIA authorizes the court only "to enjoin [a federal] agency from withholding agency records or to order the production of any agency records improperly withheld from the complainant." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). Thus, the elements of a FOIA claim are (1) improperly (2) withheld (3) agency records. "Judicial authority to devise remedies and enjoin agencies can only be invoked under the jurisdictional grant conferred by [5 U.S.C.] § 552 [(a)(4)(B)], if the agency has contravened all three components of this obligation." Kissinger v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 445 U.S. 136, 150 (1980).

In a FOIA case, the Court may award summary judgment to an agency solely on the information provided in affidavits or declarations when they describe "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 Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820, 826 (D.C. Cir. 1973), cert. denied, 415 U.S. 977 (1974). Such affidavits are "accord[ed] substantial weight." 5 U.S.C. ยง 552(a) (4)(B). In opposing a summary judgment motion, plaintiff may not "replace conclusory allegations of the complaint or answer with conclusory ...


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