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

September 30, 2010

JOSEPH POETT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, DEFENDANT.



MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Pending for determination by the undersigned Magistrate Judge is Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs of Suit ("Plaintiff's Motion") (Document No. 23). Upon consideration of the motion, the memoranda in support thereof and in opposition thereto, and the entire record herein, Plaintiff's motion will be denied.

BACKGROUND

On April 10, 2008, Plaintiff brought suit alleging violations of the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552. As relief, Plaintiff requested declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as "reasonable attorneys fees and other litigation costs reasonably incurred by Joseph Poett in prosecuting this case[.]" Complaint ("Compl.") (Document No.1) at 8-9. Plaintiff's Complaint was based upon his June 21, 2007 request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") for "all documents, and information in your possession or utilized by you in reaching the Decision to deny Joseph Poett access to select agents and toxins as set forth Poett v. United States Dept. of Justice 2 herein." Compl., Ex. 1 at 2 (Document No. 1-2).*fn1 In requesting said documents and information, Plaintiff sought to "ascertain the identity of the organization he was allegedly involved with, the acts he allegedly took, and the dates and times of the alleged actions he took." Compl., ¶ 9. As stated in the June 21, 2007 request, Plaintiff's ultimate goal was "to defend himself against the charge of knowing involvement with an organization that engages in intentional crimes of violence[.]" Compl., Ex. 1 at 2.

The FBI responded to the June 21, 2007 FOIA request on October 15, 2007 by disclosing "[five] pages of documents pertaining to [Plaintiff's] request and a copy of the explanation of exemptions." Compl., Ex. 3 at 1. This response also advised Plaintiff of his right to file an administrative appeal. Id. Plaintiff filed an administrative appeal with the United States Department of Justice Office of Information and Privacy ("OIP"). On December 31, 2007, OIP affirmed the findings of the FBI, namely that Plaintiff's request was exempt from review under 5 U.S.C. § 552a(j)(2) and therefore only reviewable under 5 U.S.C. § 552. Compl., Ex. 5 at 1. OIP further found that certain information was classified under Executive Order No. 12958 and thus properly exempt from disclosure under 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1),*fn2 and that other documents were properly exempt under 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(2) and 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(c). Id. OIP also advised Plaintiff that records responsive to his request may be located at the FBI St. Louis Field Office and recommended that Plaintiff consider filing a new request directed to the St. Louis Field Office, consistent with 28 C.F.R. §§ 16.3(a), 16.41(a) (2007). Compl., Ex. 5 at 2. On Poett v. United States Dept. of Justice 3 April 10, 2008, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court requesting a release of all records responsive to his June 21, 2007 FOIA request. (Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs of Suit) (Def. Opp'n.) (Document No. 25) at 3.

Meanwhile, in a concurrent action also filed by Plaintiff, the Department of Justice released, as part of the administrative record, a January 9, 1992 letter written by Plaintiff to the British Embassy acknowledging allegedly his inadvertent contact with the Irish Northern Aid Committee in America ("NORAID").*fn3 See Administrative Record ("A.R.") (Document No. 20) at 4, Poett v. United States, Civ. Act. No. 07-1374. In that action, the FBI filed a "Notice of FBI's Final Decision" in which it advised that it "no longer reasonably suspects Plaintiff of knowing involvement with an organization that engages in domestic or international terrorism or with any other organization that engages in intentional crimes of violence." Notice of FBI's Final Decision (Document No. 34) at 1, Poett v. United States, Civ. Act. No. 07-1374.

The court (Kollar-Kotelly, J.) Ultimately determined that: Plaintiff's purpose in filing the instant FOIA action -- i.e., to be informed of the "date or date, time or times, place or places of his alleged involvement with said organization and a description of what acts he allegedly engaged in that made him suspect [as well as] the identity of the Organization Joseph Poett was allegedly involved with," Complaint, Ex. 1 at 2 [have] been satisfied.

January 18, 2010 Minute Order (Document No. 22) at 2.

CONTENTIONS OF THE PARTIES

Plaintiff contends that the release of the 1992 letter in the related action, Poett v. United States, Civ. Act. No. 07-1374, constituted a "a voluntary or unilateral change in position by the agency" since the Department of Justice had previously insisted that the letter was exempt from disclosure. Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law in Support of his Motion ("Plaintiff's Memorandum") (Document No. 16) at 9-10. Furthermore, the cause of this change in position was the initiation of this suit. Id. Plaintiff avers that he therefore has "substantially prevailed" and is thus eligible for attorney's fees and costs. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(i).

Additionally, Plaintiff asserts that he is entitled to attorney's fees and costs because the balance of the relevant factors runs in his favor. Plaintiff's Memorandum at 12. Plaintiff avers that this action helped the general public protect its ability "to keep watch to ensure their cherished Constitutional Rights are not being lost to them." Id. at 12, 14. Thereby, Plaintiff contends that this FOIA action resulted in a public benefit and was a substantial claim. Id. at 10-11. Moreover, according to Plaintiff, his "continued employment as a Chemist for USDA is now secure," and thus this action has granted him a commercial benefit. Id. at 12-13. Plaintiff then contends that his interest in obtaining the requested records "was to force the Agency to obey the mandates of the FOIA." Id. at 13. By doing so, Plaintiff would "protect his property interest . . . in his continued, unfettered employment with the USDA." Id. at 13. Finally, Plaintiff states that "Defendant's withholding of the Plaintiff's 1992 letter to the British Embassy and FBI documents generated in investigating Joseph Poett in 1992 were not backed by a reasonable basis in law." Id. at 13-14.

Defendant opposes the grant of attorney's fees and costs on the grounds that Plaintiff is not entitled to such fees.*fn4 Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs of Suit ("Defendant's Opposition") (Document No. 25) at 5. First, Defendant asserts that the disclosure of Plaintiff's requested documents conferred no public benefit, because the documents relate only to Plaintiff, and his stated purpose in requesting the documents was personal. Id. at 9. Defendant further argues that this allegedly personal interest precludes a grant of fees in this case. Id. at 9-10. Finally, Defendant avers that the Government's position is supported by a reasonable basis in law, because Plaintiff's request was limited itself FBI headquarters, and the letter which was of interest to Plaintiff was not located there. Id. at 11. Therefore, according to Defendant, the only reason why Plaintiff did not receive the document was because he requested it from the wrong office. Id. at 12.

APPLICABLE STANDARD

The Court's determination of the appropriateness of attorney fees and costs under FOIA is two-pronged. First, the Court must find that the plaintiff is eligible for attorney fees and costs. If the Court finds that the plaintiff is indeed eligible, then the Court must determine that the plaintiff is entitled to attorney fees and costs. Any award of fees, however, is subject to the Court's discretion. Barnard v. Dept. of Homeland Security, 656 F. ...


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