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Robert Roberts v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

February 24, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge


Plaintiff brings this action against the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI"), a component of the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ"), under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552. This matter is before the Court on defendant's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons discussed below, the motion will be granted.


Plaintiff has been tried and convicted of drug and related offenses in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, and was sentenced to a term of 240 months imprisonment followed by a term of supervised release. See Judgment and Commitment Order, United States v. Roberts, No. 1:02-cr-0239 (N.D. Ohio filed Aug. 25, 2003). In January 2011, plaintiff submitted a FOIA request to the FBI for "all records . . . in support of his criminal prosecution and the legislative, territorial, and subject matter jurisdiction of the District Court." Compl. ¶ 5. The FBI's initial search yielded no responsive records. Def.'s P. & A. in Supp. of its Mot. for Summ. J., Decl. of David M. Hardy ("Hardy Decl.") ¶ 7. After plaintiff filed this lawsuit asking the court "to order the production of [the requested] agency records," Compl. ¶ 1, the FBI conducted a second search which "identified six cross-reference file serials . . . consisting of 30 pages and contained within FBI File 245C-CV-64958." Hardy Decl. ¶ 16.


A. Summary Judgment in a FOIA Case

The Court grants summary judgment "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 Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). "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). Where, as in this case, the plaintiff seeks an order to compel production of government records, the agency "is entitled to summary judgment if no material facts are in dispute and if it demonstrates 'that each document that falls within the class requested either has been produced . . . or is wholly exempt from the [FOIA's] inspection requirements.'" Students Against Genocide v. Dep't of State, 257 F. 3d 828, 833 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (quoting Goland v. Cent. Intelligence Agency, 607 F.2d 339, 352 (D.C. Cir. 1978)). 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 . . . and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record []or by evidence of agency bad faith." Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Agency 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)).

B. The FBI's Search for Responsive Records "An agency fulfills its obligation[] . . . 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)). Although an agency need not search every system of records, see Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990), it "cannot limit its search to only one record system if there are others that are likely to turn up the information requested."

Id. The agency may submit affidavits or declarations that explain in reasonable detail the scope and method of its search, Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 126 (D.C. Cir. 1982), and absent contrary evidence, such affidavits or declarations are sufficient to demonstrate compliance with the FOIA, id. at 127. However, if the record "leaves substantial doubt as to the sufficiency of the search, summary judgment for the agency is not proper." Truitt, 897 F.2d at 542; see also Valencia-Lucena, 180 F.3d at 326.

The FBI's Central Records System ("CRS") contains administrative, applicant, criminal, personnel, and other files compiled for law enforcement purposes," and is arranged in "a numerical sequence of files broken down according to subject matter." Hardy Decl. ¶ 9. Subject matter areas "may relate to an individual, organization, . . . [or] activity." Id. Both FBI headquarters ("FBIHQ") and field offices maintain records in the CRS, and to search CRS records, the FBI uses the Automated Case Support System ("ACS"). Id.

"Access to the CRS is obtained through General Indices," which are described as "index cards on various subject matters that are searched either manually or through automated indices."

Hardy Decl. ¶ 10. There are two categories for entries in the General Indices: main entries which "carr[y] the name of a subject of a file contained in the CRS, and reference entries (also known as cross-references) which contain "generally only a mere mention or reference to an individual . . . contained in a document located in another 'main' file on a different subject matter." Id.

"[T]he CRS cannot electronically query the case files for data, such as an individual's name or social security number." Hardy Decl. ¶ 12. To accomplish this task, "the required information is duplicated and moved to the ACS so that it can be searched." Id. The ACS "consists of three integrated . . . automated applications that support case management functions for all FBI investigative and administrative cases." Id. ¶ 13. These applications are: Investigative Case Management ("ICM"), Electronic Case File ("ECF"), and Universal Index ("UNI"). Id. ICM provides for the opening, assignment, and closing of investigative and administrative cases, as well as the setting, assignment, and tracking of leads. Id. ¶ 13(a). If a field office opens a case, the case is assigned a Universal Case File Number which designates the type of investigation, the office of origin, and an individual case file number for that investigation. Id. "ECF serves as the central electronic repository for the FBI's official text-based documents." Id. ¶ 13(b). UNI "provide[s] a complete subject/case index to all investigative and administrative cases," and "functions to index names of cases, and to search names and cases for use in FBI investigations." Id. ¶ 13(c). The Special Agent ("SA") assigned to a case, the Supervisory SA ("SSA") in the field office conducting the investigation, and the SSA at FBIHQ determine whether "to index names other than subjects, suspects, and victims," and only information "considered . . . pertinent, relevant, or essential for future retrieval" is indexed. Id. ¶ 14. In short, "the General Indices to the CRS files are the means by which the FBI can determine what retrievable information, if any, the FBI may have in its CRS files on a particular subject matter or individual," such as plaintiff Robert Sean Roberts. Id.

The FBI's first search for records responsive to plaintiff's FOIA request used variations of plaintiff's name, his date and place of birth, and his social security number as search terms. Id. ΒΆ 15. That search yielded no responsive main files, but identified potentially responsive cross-reference files. Id. However, because the FBI's policy "is to search for and identify only 'main' files . . . at the initial stage," id., it took no further action at that time. Its second search ...

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