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National Right To Work Legal Defense and Education Foundation v. U.S. Department of Labor

December 12, 2011

NATIONAL RIGHT TO WORK LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATION FOUNDATION, INC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I.INTRODUCTION

This case concerns whether the Department of Labor followed its statutory responsibilities in responding to the Freedom of Information Act requests of the National Right to Work Legal Defense and Education Foundation, an anti-union group. Before the Court are the Department's Motion [9] for Summary Judgment and the Foundation's Cross-Motion [13] for Partial Summary Judgment. Upon consideration of the Motions, Oppositions, Replies, the entire record in this case, in camera review of certain records, and the applicable law, the Court will grant the Department's Motion for Summary Judgment and deny the Foundation's Cross-Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.

II.BACKGROUND

The Foundation, which describes itself as a "non-profit charitable organization dedicated to providing legal aid and education concerning the abuses of compulsory unionism," Compl. [1] 2, Nov. 20, 2009, filed this FOIA suit in November 2009. Id. at 1. It claimed that the Department failed to respond to its requests for disclosure of records concerning certain activities and communications of Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Deputy Solicitor of Labor Deborah Greenfield, and various labor organizations, and that the Department also wrongfully withheld certain documents.*fn1 Id. at 1, 9. It seeks a declaration that the Department is in violation of FOIA, an injunction ordering the Department to produce the withheld records, and attorneys' fees pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E). Id. at 9.

The Foundation's FOIA request relates to its suspicion that ties between labor organizations and the Department's current leadership have improperly influenced the course of national labor policy. See Pl.'s Cross-Mot. Summ. J. [13] 5. Both Secretary Solis and Deputy Solicitor Greenfield worked for labor organizations before taking up their posts with the agency following the election of Barack Obama as President in late 2008. Def.'s Answer [5] ¶¶13, 17.

In April 2009, the Foundation submitted its FOIA request to the Department's Office of Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management. Def.'s SMF [9] ¶1. That same month, the Department's FOIA Disclosure Officer-Richard French-learned about the Foundation's request and held a meeting to discuss which components of the agency might have responsive records. Id. ¶ 2. Mr. French later notified individuals identified as potentially having responsive documents and provided guidance for searching for records. Id. ¶3. Staff members to Secretary Solis and Deputy Solicitor Greenfield undertook searches of their records. Id. ¶¶4, 5. The records of other employees and agency components were also searched. Mr. French and another agency employee reviewed all the documents, redacting material that they believed fell into one or more of the FOIA exemptions. Id. ¶11.

After the documents were reviewed, the Department released them to the Foundation in several batches, id. ¶30--32, including about a hundred pages of handwritten notes that the Department provided along with its Motion for Summary Judgment in this case. Id. ¶32. The Department also supplied a 105-page Vaughn Index listing 121 records that had been withheld in full or redacted. Vaughn Index [10-1], Apr. 30, 2010. The Index indicates, inter alia, the type of record (e.g., notes, e-mails, drafts, or memoranda), a general description of its contents, and the Department's grounds for withholding or redacting it. See id. at 1. Various grounds were asserted, and most of the withheld or redacted documents were withheld or redacted based upon multiple grounds.

While the Foundation's Complaint in this Court*fn2 initially raised a broad challenge to the Department's handling of its records request, see Compl. [1] 9, during the course of the summary-judgment briefing that gives rise to this Opinion the Foundation has conceded a number of issues and the remaining ones involve only the Department's application of certain FOIA exemptions to certain withheld or redacted records. See Pl.'s Reply [21] 1--2.

III.LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment should be granted when the "materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations, . . . admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials" show "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)--(c). This standard requires more than the mere existence of some factual dispute between the parties; "the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247--48 (1986). "A fact is 'material' if a dispute over it might affect the outcome of a suit under the governing law." Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006). "An issue is 'genuine' if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Doe v. IRS, 706 F. Supp. 2d 1, 5 (D.D.C. 2009) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

This Court reviews a motion for summary judgment arising from an agency's decision to withhold or disclose documents under FOIA de novo. Mead Data Ctr., Inc. v. Dep't of Air Force, 566 F.2d 242, 251 (D.C. Cir. 1977). The agency must demonstrate that it "conducted a search reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents" and that any withheld material falls within a statutory exemption. Weisberg v. Dep't of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344, 1351 (D.C. Cir. 1983). The agency must prove that information was not withheld due to bad faith. Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). FOIA exemptions must be "narrowly construed," FBI v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615, 630 (1982), and if records are improperly withheld, the Court may order their production. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).

IV.THE PARTIES' MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

A.Reasonableness and Adequacy of the Department's Search Resolution of this case has been greatly simplified by the Foundation's welcome concessions regarding issues not truly in dispute. It has conceded that the Department has partially complied with its FOIA obligations by conducting a reasonable search for responsive records. Pl.'s Reply [21] 2. Furthermore, the Foundation has offered no evidence of bad faith on the part of the Department to rebut the agency's showing. See Clay v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 680 F. Supp. 2d 239, 245 (D.D.C. 2010) (citing Miller v. U.S. Dep't of State, 779 F.2d 1378, 1383-- 84 (8th Cir. 1985)). Therefore, in the light of this concession as well as the affidavits and other evidence submitted by the Department describing its handling of the ...


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