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Vern Mckinley v. Federal Housing Finance Agency

June 7, 2011

VERN MCKINLEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FEDERAL HOUSING FINANCE AGENCY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Vern McKinley brings this action against the Federal Housing Finance Authority ("FHFA"), claiming that FHFA has improperly withheld two documents that are responsive to a records request that McKinley submitted under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552 et seq.*fn1 McKinley argues that FHFA has incorrectly applied the deliberative-process and attorney-work-product privileges to withhold the documents. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment [## 9, 11]. Upon consideration of the motions, the oppositions thereto, and the record of this case, the Court concludes that the motions should be held in abeyance pending the Court's in camera review of the documents.

I. BACKGROUND

FHFA was created in July 2008 by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, 12 U.S.C. § 4501 et seq. Among other things, FHFA serves as the primary regulatory and oversight authority for the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (known respectively as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and together as the Enterprises). Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 2 ("Wright Decl.") ¶ 8; see 12 U.S.C. § 4511(b). In September 2008, FHFA placed the Enterprises in conservatorship, with the goal of stabilizing their operations and finances. Wright Decl. ¶ 10.

In May 2010, McKinley submitted a FOIA request to FHFA, seeking any and all communications and records concerning or relating to the assessment of an adverse impact on systemic risk in addressing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and in particular how the FHFA and the Department of the Treasury determined that conservatorship was the preferred option to avoid any systemic risk of placing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into receivership.

Compl. ¶ 5. This request, as McKinley subsequently clarified for FHFA, covers documents from the period spanning July 1 and September 30, 2008. In response to McKinley's request, FHFA initially searched eight different internal offices, including the Office of General Counsel. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 1 ("Lee Decl.") ¶ 13. The Office of General Counsel produced three potentially responsive documents. Lee Decl. ¶ 15. An FHFA attorney reviewed the documents and concluded that they contained material protected by the deliberative-process and attorney-work-product privileges and were thus withholdable under FOIA's Exemption 5. Lee Decl. ¶ 17; see 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5). McKinley was notified of that conclusion in July 2010. FHFA conducted a further search in October 2010 that uncovered no new responsive materials. Lee Decl. ¶¶ 18--23.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

To obtain summary judgment in a FOIA action, an agency must prove that "each document that falls within the class requested either has been produced, is unidentifiable, or is wholly exempt from the Act's inspection requirements." Goland v. CIA, 607 F.2d 339, 352 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (quoting Nat'l Cable Television Ass'n, Inc. v. FCC, 479 F.2d 183, 186 (D.C. Cir. 1973)) (internal quotation marks omitted). If the agency withholds documents under a FOIA exemption, it may earn summary judgment by producing affidavits or declarations that 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). The exemptions, however, "are to be narrowly construed," FBI v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615, 630 (1982). If the Court finds that any records were improperly withheld, it may order their production. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).

III. ANALYSIS

Here, McKinley does not challenge the sufficiency of FHFA's search. He also elects not to contest FHFA's withholding of the first of the three responsive documents that its search uncovered. He contends, however, that FHFA has misapplied the deliberative-process and attorney-work-product privileges to the remaining two documents. Neither privilege, McKinley asserts, justifies the withholding of the entirety of each document. The Court addresses each privilege in turn.

A. The Deliberative-Process Privilege

The deliberative-process privilege protects materials that are "both predecisional and deliberative." Pub. Citizen, Inc. v. Office of Mgmt. & Budget, 598 F.3d 865, 867 (D.C. Cir. 2010). A document is the former if "it was generated before the adoption of an agency policy" and is the latter if "it reflects the give-and-take of the consultative process." Coastal States Gas Corp. v. Dep't of Energy, 617 F.2d 854, 866 (D.C. Cir. 1980); accord Judicial Watch, Inc. v. FDA, 449 F.3d 141, 151 (D.C. Cir. 2006).

Here, it is undisputed that the two documents are predecisional. The parties contest, however, whether the documents are deliberative. FHFA argues that documents are deliberative if, as here, they involve the weighing and consideration of potential courses of action. McKinley argues that a document is not deliberative unless the agency can show that the release of the document would harm the agency's decisionmaking process, which, he contends, FHFA cannot do here. McKinley is incorrect.

On June 3, 2011, the D.C. Circuit rejected McKinley's contention that an agency must show harm to its decisionmaking process in order to withhold a record as "deliberative." Ruling on McKinley's appeal in another FOIA case, the D.C. Circuit explained that "Congress enacted FOIA Exemption 5 . . . precisely because it determined that disclosure of material that is both predecisional and deliberative does harm an agency's decisionmaking process." McKinley v. Bd. of Governors of Fed. Reserve Sys., 2011 WL 2162896, at *7 (D.C. Cir. Jun. 3, 2011). The D.C. Circuit further explained that it would be impracticable for courts to determine on a case-by-case basis whether the release of predecisional materials would be harmful. See id. at *7--8 (citing Wolfe v. Dep't of Health & Human ...


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