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Sanders v. Obama

August 2, 2010


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


Plaintiff Cornell Sanders, proceeding pro se, brings suit pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, and the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, against the Executive Office for United States Attorneys ("EOUSA"). Mr. Sanders's FOIA request focuses on records held by the U.S. Attorney's Office pertaining to his 1992 criminal prosecution, United States v. Cornell Lorenzo Sanders, No. 92-113-cr-FTM-21 (M.D. Fla.), in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. Mr. Sanders challenges whether the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida ("FLM") - and EOUSA as overseeing the search - produced all responsive documents and challenges the decision to withhold a transcript from the grand jury that indicted Mr. Sanders. Mr. Sanders also requests that the Court make factual and legal findings beyond the merits of his FOIA claim. As the Court finds that EOUSA acted properly in responding to Mr. Sanders's FOIA request, the Defendant's motion for summary judgment will be granted.


On October 17, 2007, Plaintiff Cornell Sanders submitted a Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, request to the Executive Office for United States Attorneys ("EOUSA"), which is a component of the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ")*fn1 .

Specifically, Mr. Sanders sought:

[a] copy of the original complaint, as required under Rule 3, of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, from case number 92-113-CRFMT-21, filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. Also, I am requesting a copy of the Arrest Warrant, as required under Rule 4. Additionally, I request copies of any testimony, information, evidence, exhibits, minutes / transcripts, any and / all other similar information that was submitted to the Federal Grand Jury.

Defs.' Mem. in Support of Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 15] ("Defs.' Mem."), Exhibit 1 (FOIA Request). All the documents sought stem from Mr. Sanders's criminal prosecution, and subsequent conviction, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Fort Myers Division. Mr. Sanders included a DOJ-issued Certification of Identity form and a printout demonstrating his inmate account balance with his request. See id. By letter dated November 15, 2007, EOUSA confirmed receipt of Mr. Sanders's FOIA request and assigned it request number 07-3792.

As each U.S. Attorney's Office maintains it own case files, EOUSA then forwarded the FOIA request to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division ("USAO FLM"). In response to the request, Christina J. Griffiths, then-FOIA liaison at USAO FLM, conducted a search for responsive records. Ms. Griffiths conducted a search of the Legal Office Information Network System ("LIONS"), which is an electronic database indexing all current and completed cases. LIONS is searchable by a defendant's name, the USAO file jacket number, or the district court case number. Ms. Griffiths conducted a search on LIONS using Mr. Sanders's full name "Cornell Sanders" and the criminal case numbers "CR# 1992R73211" and "92-113-CR-FTM-21." Defs.' Mem., Ex. L ("Griffiths Decl.") ¶ 10. The search revealed Mr. Sanders's closed criminal case and by contacting various individuals, Ms. Griffiths was able to locate the physical file for the criminal case. Ms. Griffiths found the box containing the physical file, located at the Appellate File Storage room, and searched the file. With the exception of a sixteen-page grand jury transcript,*fn2 Ms. Griffiths did not find any responsive records in his criminal file.

By letter dated February 19, 2008, EOUSA informed Mr. Sanders that the search by USAO FLM uncovered no responsive records. EOUSA explained that the records did not contain a copy of the requested arrest warrant and that the grand jury transcript was exempt from release under FOIA Exemption (b)(3) and Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Mr. Sanders was informed that the decision reflected in the letter constituted a final action by the agency and explained the process by which to appeal the determination. By letter dated February 25, 2008, Mr. Sanders filed a timely administrative appeal with the DOJ's Office of Information & Privacy ("OIP") appealing the adequacy of EOUSA's search for responsive documents and EOUSA's decision to withhold the grand jury transcript. By letter dated March 20, 2008, OIP notified Mr. Sanders that his appeal was assigned number 08-1230.

On May 19, 2008, OIP affirmed in part EOUSA's final action on Mr. Sanders's FOIA request. OIP first determined that EOUSA conducted a reasonable and diligent search for responsive records, despite not finding Mr. Sanders's arrest warrant. OIP also upheld EOUSA's decision to withhold grand jury information reasoning it was protected from disclosure by 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3), which shields information specifically exempted by statute from the disclosure requirements of FOIA. OIP determined that EOUSA correctly invoked 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3) because Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides generally for the secrecy of grand jury proceedings. However, as to Mr. Sanders's request for a copy of the criminal complaint, OIP remanded the case to EOUSA for the agency to produce the indictment and superceding indictment - which were the charging documents filed by the prosecutor in the case.*fn3 On March 26, 2009, EOUSA released the four-page indictment and a one-page superceding indictment to Mr. Sanders without redactions.

On April 13, 2009, Mr. Sanders again appealed to OIP seeking the release of missing pages from the superceding indictment and complaining that the copy of the superceding indictment lacked the official court seal. Mr. Sanders also contested the decision to withhold other requested documents, such as the criminal complaint and everything presented to the grand jury. The letter also notified OIP that Mr. Sanders had filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Mr. Sanders's second administrative appeal to the OIP was assigned number 09-1741. On July 22, 2009, OIP informed Mr. Sanders that it was terminating his appeal in accordance with 28 C.F.R. § 16.9(a)(3) since he had filed the instant civil case. Nonetheless, on September 29, 2009, EOUSA issued a supplemental release providing Mr. Sanders with a complete four-page copy of the superceding indictment. After Mr. Sanders filed this suit, Ms. Griffiths conducted a second search of the criminal case file to locate the arrest warrant and/or the arrest warrant affidavit. Neither could be found.*fn4

Mr. Sanders filed suit on May 18, 2009. He alleges that the documents Defendants have produced are forgeries. See Complaint at 3. However, even if such documents are authentic, Mr. Sanders argues that full disclosure has not been made since certain documents, including copies of the criminal complaint/Magistrates' complaint, information, or officers' affidavit in support of the complaint have not been produced. Id. Mr. Sanders further requests, inter alia, that this Court make findings of fact and law as to whether the government had probable cause to arrest Mr. Sanders in the first instance. Id. at 4.


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 ...

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