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Julian C. White v. United States Department of Justice

January 5, 2012

JULIAN C. WHITE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Julian C. White seeks documents regarding a criminal case purportedly prosecuted by the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York in 1998. Plaintiff brought this suit against the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ") under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment.*fn1 Because the Defendant conducted an adequate search for responsive records, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment shall be GRANTED, and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment shall be DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History

Although not at issue in this case, one of Plaintiff's previous FOIA requests provides useful context to suit. In 2007, Plaintiff filed an FOIA request with the FBI seeking records pertaining to Plaintiff's missing brother, Moses White III. White Decl. ¶ 3; White v. FBI, Case No. 1:09-cv-421 (N.D. Ga. Filed Feb. 18, 2009). In response to this request, the FBI produced redacted records concerning the investigation into Moses White's disappearance. See Pl.'s Ex.

A. The records indicate Moses White was assisting the FBI New Orleans and New York Field Divisions with an investigation associated with file number 26B-NY-264824. Id. at 1. The records further indicate that in early 1998, in connection with that investigation, at least one defendant was arrested for violating 18 U.S.C. § 2312 (Interstate Transportation of Stolen Motor Vehicles), and either pled guilty or was convicted. Id. at 1, 2.

Plaintiff, through counsel, submitted a FOIA request to the Executive Office for United States Attorneys on June 16, 2010. Def.'s Ex. A. Plaintiff requested "[a]ll court filings from the federal court criminal case cross referenced as/involving FBI File No. 26B-NY-264824, a case that was prosecuted by AUSA Dolan M. Garrett (approximate date 1998), and which led to the defendant's conviction for violation of 18 U.S.C. 2312 [sic] (Interstate Transportation of Stolen Motor Vehicles)." Id. at 1. The letter requested all responsive records "in the possession or control of your office, as well as any responsive records in the possession or control of the U.S. Attorney [sic] Office for the Eastern District of New York." Id. The letter did not indicate whether Mr. White was the "defendant" in the referenced case. See id. The EOUSA received the request on June 25, 2010 (id.) and notified Mr. White on July 22, 2010 that his request had been received, the EOUSA had assigned a tracking number to the request, and that the request would be processed in the order in which it was received (Def.'s Ex. B).

Having received no further correspondence, Mr. White wrote to the EOUSA on August 19, 2010 asking for "the date by which we can anticipate a final response" to the request. Def.'s Ex. C. The EOUSA responded that due to the large number of FOIA requests received, Mr. White's request had not yet been processed as of September 16, 2010. Def.'s Ex. D. On September 29, 2010, the EOUSA issued a response to the request, indicating a search for records in the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York ("USAO") revealed no responsive records. Def.'s Ex. E. Mr. White appealed to the DOJ Office of Information Policy, arguing "there must clearly be some responsive records for [sic] copies of the federal court criminal action that was identified in this FOIA request." Def.'s Ex. F. The appeal was received on October 18, 2010, and denied on December 29, 2010. Def.'s Exs. G, H. Plaintiff filed suit on January 31, 2011.

B. Defendant's Search for Responsive Records On September 13, 2010, Thomas P. Lowenthal, the Paralegal Specialist serving as the FOIA liaison with the EOUSA assigned to the USAO, received Plaintiff's FOIA request. Lowenthal Decl. ¶¶ 1, 5. Mr. Lowenthal used the Legal Information Office Network System ("LIONS") to search for documents responsive to Mr. White's request. Id. at ¶ 7. The LIONS database tracks civil, criminal, and appellate investigations and cases. Id. The database can be searched using a variety of criteria, including the USAO staff assigned to the case, victim/witness names, "scheduled events," participants, and various numbers associated with the case or investigation. Def.'s Reply Ex. A. Participant searches allow queries composed of all or part of the name of a person associated with the case, or a number associated with the participant, such as their social security number. Id. A search for a participant's name will return results for both exact matches and similar sounding names. Lowenthal Decl. ¶ 8. Number or "case" searches allow the user to search for a matter or case based on "a variety of numbers in LIONS associated with the matter or case (Agency File Number, Court Number, Grand Jury Number, etc)," including the FBI file number. Def.'s Reply Ex. A.

Mr. Lowenthal, believing the "defendant" in the case referenced in Plaintiff's request to be Mr. White, searched for Mr. White's name in the LIONS database.*fn2 Lowenthal Decl. ¶ 8. This search did not return any responsive records. Id. Plaintiff did not identify who the "defendant" might be. The only names provided in the request were Mr. White's, and the prosecutor's. Mr. Lowenthal also performed a search using the FBI file number provided in Plaintiff's request. Id. at ¶ 9. This search likewise failed to return any responsive records. Id. Finally, Mr. Lowenthal searched the EDNY PACER court docket number database for Mr. White's name, but did not locate any cases involving the United States Attorney's Office. Id. at ¶ 10.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

FOIA cases are typically and appropriately decided on motions for summary judgment. Miscavige v. IRS, 2 F.3d 366, 368 (11th Cir. 1993); Rushford v. Civiletti, 485 F. Supp. 477, 481 n.13 (D.D.C. 1980). Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment must be granted when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Moreover, summary judgment is properly granted against a party who "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion . . . fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor and accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. A nonmoving party, however, must establish more than "the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252.

III. DISCUSSION

The FOIA requires agencies of the federal government to release records to the public upon request, unless one of nine statutory exemptions applies. See NLRB v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 421 U.S. 132, 136 (1975); 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). In this case, Defendant's search revealed no responsive records, thus resolution of the parties' motions turns entirely on the adequacy of the agency's search.*fn3 The adequacy of a search is measured by a standard of reasonableness and depends on the individual circumstances of each case. Truitt v. Dep't of State, 897 F.2d 540, 542 (D.C. Cir. 1990). The question is not whether responsive documents may exist, but whether the search itself was adequate. Steinberg v. Dep't of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 551 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). Before it can obtain summary judgment in a FOIA case, "the agency must show, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the requester, that . . . it has conducted a 'search reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.'" Id. (quoting Weisberg v. Dep't of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. ...


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