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Orly Taitz v. Michael Astrue

August 30, 2011

ORLY TAITZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [21]. Upon consideration of defendant's motion, plaintiff's opposition [31], the reply thereto [32], the entire record herein, and the applicable law, the Court will grant summary judgment in defendant's favor for the reasons set forth below.

I.BACKGROUND

Ever persistent, plaintiff has once again come before this Court in an effort to uncover "the biggest cover up in the history of this nation." Pl.'s Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. 20 [31]. She believes that the President is using a "fraudulently obtained" social security number and that the Social Security Administration-among other agencies-is involved in a scheme to "cover[] up social security fraud, IRS fraud, elections fraud and possibly treason" committed by the President. Id. at 5--6, 13. As her numerous filings with the Court demonstrate, plaintiff will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of this alleged conspiracy. Unfortunately for plaintiff, today is not her lucky day.

In her latest litigation before this Court, plaintiff has sued Michael Astrue, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 ("FOIA"), for information relating to individuals' social security numbers. On October 4, 2010, plaintiff submitted a FOIA request to the SSA seeking various records and posing questions relating to the social security numbers of several individuals. Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. 2 [21-2] ("Def.'s Mem. in Supp."). The SSA responded to her request on March 2, 2011. See Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. C [21-6] ("March Response"). The record demonstrates that the SSA conducted a thorough search in response to plaintiff's request, disclosing all responsive documents except for the "redacted Form SS-5 for the living individual who holds the social-security number xxx-xx-4425." Def.'s Mem. in Supp. 2 [21-2].

The SSA withheld the requested Form SS-5*fn1 under FOIA Exemption 6, which protects records from release where disclosure "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). In its response to plaintiff's request, the SSA explained that the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, protects the personal information of social security number holders. See March Response 2 [21-6]. The SSA releases such information to the public only with the holder's consent-which the SSA did not have here-or if FOIA requires disclosure. The SSA determined that Exemption 6 applied to the Form SS-5 because the information therein could be used to identify the social security number holder and because plaintiff had identified no public interest that would be served by disclosure. See id.

Having filed an administrative appeal, plaintiff filed a complaint and an amended complaint asking this Court to order defendant to release various documents. Defendant answered the amended complaint and subsequently moved for summary judgment. Defendant argues that the SSA conducted an adequate search for responsive documents and produced all such documents that are not exempt from release under FOIA. In her opposition to defendant's summary judgment motion, plaintiff does not dispute that the SSA conducted an adequate search for responsive documents and disclosed all such documents except for one-the requested Form SS-5. She challenges only the SSA's withholding of that form. See Pl.'s Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. 5 [31]. Thus, the only question before this Court in determining whether defendant is entitled to summary judgment is whether the SSA properly withheld the Form SS-5 under FOIA Exemption 6.

II.STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate "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); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). FOIA actions are typically resolved on summary judgment. See Reliant Energy Power Generation, Inc. v. FERC., 520 F. Supp. 2d 194, 200 (D.D.C. 2007). To establish that it is entitled to summary judgment in a FOIA case, an agency must demonstrate that it has conducted an adequate search for the requested documents and that any withheld documents fall into one of FOIA's statutory exemptions. Id. In determining whether the defendant agency has met its burden, "the underlying facts are viewed in the light most favorable to the [FOIA] requester." Weisberg v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344, 1350 (D.C. Cir. 1983).

A court reviews an agency's response to a FOIA request de novo. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). Affidavits that the agency submits to demonstrate the adequacy of its response are entitled to a presumption of good faith. Ground Saucer Watch, Inc. v. CIA, 692 F.2d 770, 771 (D.C. Cir. 1981). The reviewing court "is not obligated to conduct an in camera review of the documents withheld [under a FOIA exemption]; the decision to do so is discretionary." Meeropol v. Meese, 790 F.2d 942, 958 (D.C. Cir. 1985). The court may grant summary judgment in favor of the agency "simply on the basis of [its] affidavits, if they 'contain information of reasonable detail, sufficient to place the documents within the exemption category, and if the information is not challenged by contrary evidence in the record or evidence of agency bad faith.'" Id. (quoting Lesar v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 636 F.2d 472, 481 (D.C. Cir. 1980)).

III.DISCUSSION

FOIA Exemption 6 exempts from disclosure "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). In determining whether an agency has properly withheld a record under Exemption 6, a court must first determine whether disclosure would compromise a substantial privacy interest. Nat'l Ass'n of Retired Fed. Emps. v. Homer, 879 F.2d 873, 874 (D.C. Cir. 1989). The court must then balance any such privacy interest in nondisclosure "against the public interest in the release of the records" to determine whether disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Id.

In a previous case in which plaintiff requested the same Form SS-5 that she has requested here, this Court held that social security numbers are exempt from disclosure under FOIA Exemption 6. See Taitz v. Obama, 754 F. Supp. 2d 57, 60 (D.D.C. 2010). That holding was not surprising, as it is consistent with other courts' recognition that Exemption 6 protects social security numbers. See, e.g., Smith v. Dept. of Labor, No. 10-1253, 2011 WL 3099703, at *6 (D.D.C. July 26, 2011); Prison Legal News v. Lappin, No. 05-1812, 2011 WL 766559, at *6 (D.D.C. Feb. 25, 2011); Coleman v. Lappin, 680 F. Supp. 2d 192, 197 (D.D.C. 2010). It is also consistent with the SSA's regulations, which list social security numbers as "information that [the SSA] frequently withhold[s] under Exemption 6." 20 C.F.R. § 420.100(c).

Here, the SSA withheld from disclosure only one document requested by plaintiff-the redacted Form SS-5 of the living individual who holds social security number xxx-xx-4425.*fn2 In requesting that form, plaintiff asked for the date of the application as well as the zip code and gender of the applicant. See Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. A [21-4]. She did not seek the name of the applicant. See id. Because the redacted Form SS-5 contains identifying information associated with a living individual's social security number, its disclosure would compromise a substantial privacy interest. See Sherman v. U.S. Dept. of Army, 244 F.3d 357, 365 (5th Cir. 2001) ("[A]n individual's informational privacy interest in his or her [social security number] is substantial."). Redacting the individual's name from the Form SS-5-while still retaining the social security number, the date of the application, and the ...


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