Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB 7088-07) (Hon. Natalia M. Combs Greene, Trial Judge).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Oberly, Associate Judge
Argued September 21, 2010
Before RUIZ, BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, and OBERLY, Associate Judges.
Under the District of Columbia's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), D.C. Code § 2-531 et seq. (2001), married appellants Richard Condit and Claire Riley requested all Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) records "that pertain to" themselves and their five children. Appellants also requested disclosure of DYRS staff and administrative manuals, statements of policy, and interpretations of policy, acts, regulations and rules relating, in broad terms, to matters involving committed youth. DYRS concluded that the personal records were statutorily exempt from disclosure as "juvenile social records" required to be kept confidential under D.C. Code § 16-2332 (b)(1) (Supp. 2010). DYRS did provide appellants with substantially all the manuals, statements, and interpretations they requested. On administrative appeal pursuant to D.C. Code § 2-537 (a), the Mayor affirmed the agency's decision to withhold the personal records pertaining to appellants and their children as protected juvenile social records and noted that the Mayor's office had previously directed the agency to provide appellants with the requested manuals, statements, and interpretations. Appellants thereafter filed suit in Superior Court seeking release of the withheld documents. We affirm the trial court's rulings that the personal records are exempt from disclosure and that appellants are not entitled to attorney's fees and costs.
I. Facts and Procedural History
Two of appellants' children were committed to the custody of DYRS in 2005, but on May 8, 2007, DYRS closed each child's case, apparently without any prior notice to appellants. On May 12, 2007, appellants filed their FOIA request. FOIA gives "any person" the right to inspect and copy any public record of a public body, subject to certain exemptions. See D.C. Code § 2-532. In response to the personal records request, DYRS asserted that the records were exempt from FOIA as "[i]nformation specifically exempted from disclosure by statute." D.C. Code § 2-534 (a)(6). District law states that DYRS "[r]ecords pertaining to youth in the custody of the Department or contract providers shall be privileged and confidential and shall only be released pursuant to § 16-2332." D.C. Code § 2-1515.06 (a) (Supp. 2010). In turn, § 16-2332 (b)(1) allows the release of juvenile social records only to limited persons and agencies, and for limited purposes. See D.C. Code § 16-2332 (b)(1).*fn1 Parents are not included.
Though DYRS asserted that the personal records were exempt, it informed appellants that it was working on compiling the requested manuals, statements, and interpretations. The agency provided appellants with the vast majority of these documents on August 16, 2007. On October 24, 2007, pursuant to D.C. Code § 2-537 (a)(1), appellants filed suit against the Mayor and DYRS alleging violations of FOIA for the agency's failure to provide appellants with the requested personal records pertaining to the appellants and their five children. Appellants' suit also requested the manuals, statements, and interpretations the agency had furnished them nearly two months earlier and, citing D.C. Code § 2-536 (a)(2) and (4), further demanded that defendants publish the manuals, statements, and interpretations on the Internet or otherwise make them publicly accessible. Appellants' complaint did not acknowledge that they already had received essentially all of the manuals, statements, and interpretations they requested nearly two months prior to filing suit.
On February 15, 2008, the Superior Court granted the District's motion to dismiss the claim for release of the personal records, holding that the records were exempt from FOIA under §§ 2-1515.06 (a) and 16-2332 (b)(1). It denied the District's motion to dismiss the claims pertaining to the manuals and policy documents, rejecting the argument that appellants lacked standing because their complaints that defendants had not made the manuals and related documents public as required by law were no more than "generalized grievances." Subsequently, the parties reached an oral stipulation in which they agreed that the only matter still in contention was appellants' claim for attorney's fees and costs and that the case should be closed in all other respects. On June 10, 2009, the trial court denied appellants' motion for attorney's fees and costs, holding that appellants did not "substantially prevail" on their claims. On July 9, 2009, appellants filed a notice of appeal from the trial court's orders of February 15, 2008 and June 10, 2009.
"Our Freedom of Information Act... is designed to promote the disclosure of information, not to inhibit it." Washington Post v. Minority Bus. Opportunity Comm'n, 560 A.2d 517, 521 (D.C. 1989). For that reason, "the provisions of the Act giving citizens the right of access are to be generously construed," while the statutory "exemptions [from disclosure] are to be narrowly construed, with ambiguities resolved in favor of disclosure."
Id. That is why the statute places the burden of defending a decision to withhold production of requested records on the agency. D.C. Code § 2-537 (b).
What is more, to meet its burden the agency typically is required to provide a reviewing court with sufficient information in the form of affidavits, so-called Vaughn indexes,*fn2 oral testimony, or an in camera review of responsive documents to enable the court - not the agency - to be the final arbiter of the propriety of the agency's decision to withhold information. See, e.g., Gallant v. NLRB, 26 F.3d 168, 172 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (citation omitted). FOIA also requires an agency seeking to withhold requested documents first to determine whether any portions of the documents are "reasonably segregable" from the protected portions and, if so, to provide those portions to the requestor. See D.C. Code § 2-534 (b); Washington Post v. Minority Bus. Opportunity Comm'n, 560 A.2d at 522-23. As the court explained in Vaughn, 484 F.2d at 826, "[i]t is vital that some process be formulated that will (1) assure that a party's right to information is not submerged beneath government obfuscation and mischaracterization, and (2) permit the court system effectively and efficiently to evaluate the factual nature of disputed information."
In the case before us, DYRS failed to provide the court with affidavits, a Vaughn index, testimony, or any other verifiable support for its determination that the personal records sought by appellants were statutorily protected from disclosure as "juvenile social records" within the meaning of D.C. Code § 16-2332 (b)(1) and also as documents the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy under D.C. Code § 2-534 (a)(2). Although it stated that the documents contained "treatment team notes," it did not elaborate on the content of such notes or whether all the documents requested contained such notes. DYRS simply asserted that "juvenile social records" are not subject to redaction at all because they are deemed confidential by statute.
In normal circumstances, such a record would cause us to feel constrained to hold that the agency failed to meet its burden of defending its decision to withhold production. We note that the agency's position at oral argument came close to suggesting a view that documents in the possession of the DYRS, by the very nature of the agency's mission, must always fall within a category statutorily protected from disclosure and that the agency therefore need not follow the well-established procedures applicable to other agencies seeking to defend their decisions to withhold documents sought under FOIA. Yet we know from this very case that the DYRS does have documents that constitute public records that must be produced, to wit, the manuals, statements, and interpretations, and we have no doubt that there are many other documents within the ...