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Melvin anderson v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

August 25, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James E. Boasberg United States District Judge


Plaintiff Melvin Anderson is a federal prisoner incarcerated in El Paso, Texas. Following a transfer there from a Florida institution, Anderson submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Defendant Federal Bureau of Prisons seeking all documents relating to his transfer. BOP conducted a search and released a total of six pages, five of which were redacted in some manner. BOP also withheld eight responsive pages under FOIA Exemptions 7(C) and 7(F). In response to these withholdings, Plaintiff brought this suit. The parties have now filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. Because the Court finds that Defendant's search was adequate and the withholdings proper, the Court will grant Defendant's Motion.


On December 28, 2009, Plaintiff sent BOP a FOIA request under 5 U.S.C. § 552 et seq., seeking all records relating to his transfer from a correctional complex in Florida to one in El Paso. Dft. Motion, Exh. A. (Plaintiff's FOIA request). BOP's Central Office received the request on January 4, 2010, and determined that any documents responsive to Plaintiff's request would be located in his central file, which is "the primary system . . . for the maintenance of records pertaining to the care, classification/designation, subsistence, protections, discipline and programs of federal inmates." Dft. Motion, Declaration of Larry Collins, ¶¶ 5, 7, 11. Transfer records are specifically kept in the central files. Id., ¶ 11. The facility housing an inmate holds his central file, so Plaintiff's file was transferred to El Paso when he was transferred there. Id. BOP, accordingly, forwarded Plaintiff's FOIA request to El Paso. Id., ¶ 5.

On April 1, 2010, staff at El Paso conducted a page-by-page search of Plaintiff's central file for responsive records. Id., ¶ 7. The staff located 14 pages responsive to his request in the "FOI Exempt Section" of his central file. Id. This section contains documents with nondisclosable information related to inmates. Id. ¶ 7 n.3. The staff forwarded the responsive documents to BOP's regional office in Dallas, Texas. Id. ¶ 7.

On April 8, 2010, BOP notified Plaintiff that it had located 14 pages of responsive documents. Dft. Motion, Exh. B (April 8 Letter). It informed him, however, that only one page would be released in its entirety, five pages would be released with redactions, and the remaining eight pages would be withheld. Id. BOP claimed that the withholdings were justified under FOIA Exemptions 7(C) and 7(F). Id. Plaintiff then filed this suit challenging these withholdings. The parties have now filed competing Motions for Summary Judgment.*fn1 On August 8, 2011, the Court ordered Defendant to produce the disputed documents for in camera review. Defendant filed them with the Court on August 15, 2011, and the Court has now reviewed all pages.

II.Legal Standard

Summary judgment may be granted if "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986); Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006). "A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by citing to particular parts of materials in the record." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)(1)(A). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). "[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. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 248. Factual assertions in the moving party's affidavits or declarations may be accepted as true unless the opposing party submits his own affidavits, declarations, or documentary evidence to the contrary. Neal v. Kelly, 963 F.2d 453, 456 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment. Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Border Patrol, 623 F. Supp. 2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009); Bigwood v. United States Agency for Int'l Dev., 484 F. Supp. 2d 68, 73 (D.D.C. 2007). In a FOIA case, the Court may grant summary judgment based solely on information provided in an agency's affidavits or declarations if they are relatively detailed and when they describe "the documents and 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). Such affidavits or declarations are accorded "a presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted by 'purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents.'" SafeCard Servs., Inc. v. Sec. & Exch. Comm'n, 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (quoting Ground Saucer Watch, Inc. v. Cent. Intelligence Agency, 692 F.2d 770, 771 (D.C. Cir. 1981)).


A. Vaughn Index

Plaintiff initially argues that because Defendant failed to produce a Vaughn Index, it cannot justify its withholdings. See Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820, 827 (D.C. Cir. 1973) (requiring agency to produce an index when agency withholds information in its response to valid FOIA request). He is not correct. First, where a declaration explains in detail an agency's justifications for withholding information, a Vaughn Index is not required. See King v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 2010 WL 935420 (D.D.C. 2010) (citing Voinche v. FBI, 412 F. Supp. 2d 60, 65 (D.D.C. 2006)). Here, the Collins Declaration lays out in sufficient detail the justifications for Defendant's withholdings. In any event, the Court has reviewed the disputed documents in camera and thus knows precisely what was withheld. Finally, Defendant ultimately produced a Vaughn Index as part of its in camera submission to the Court on August 15, 2011.

B. Adequacy of the Search

There is little dispute here about the adequacy of Defendant's search for documents. "An agency fulfills its obligations under FOIA if it can demonstrate beyond material doubt that its search was 'reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.'" Valencia-Lucena v. U.S. Coast Guard, 180 F.3d 321, 325 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (quoting Truitt v. Dep't of State, 897 F.2d 540, 542 (D.C. Cir. 1990)); see alsoSteinberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 551 (D.C. Cir. 1994). The adequacy of an agency's search for documents requested under FOIA is judged by a standard of reasonableness and depends upon the facts of each case. Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984). There is no requirement that an agency search every record system in response to a FOIA request, but only those records that are likely to have responsive documents. Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990). To meet its burden, the agency may submit affidavits or declarations that explain in reasonable detail the scope and method of the agency's search. Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 126 (D.C. Cir. 1982). In the absence of ...

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