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Judicial Watch, Inc v. U.S. Department of Energy et al

August 31, 2012

JUDICIAL WATCH, INC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rudolph Contreras United States District Judge

: Re Document No.: 11

MEMORANDUM OPINION

DENYING WITHOUT PREJUDICE DEFENDANT DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the court on one defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings. The plaintiff is a not-for-profit organization that filed requests for documents with the defendant government agencies, pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552. According to the plaintiff, the Department of Energy ("defendant") has not fully produced responsive documents and is thereby unlawfully withholding records. In response, the defendant moves for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). Because the court does not have sufficient information to resolve the exhaustion issue, the defendant's motion is denied without prejudice.

II. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND*fn1

The plaintiff is a not-for-profit organization that sent the defendant a FOIA request on September 6, 2011, seeking access to records regarding Solyndra LLC and other entities. Compl. ¶¶ 3,

5. On September 12, 2011, the defendant sent the plaintiff a letter stating that the request had been assigned a "controlled number," and that the defendant would send a subsequent letter either informing the plaintiff that further information was required, or indicating that the request had been "assigned [in order] to conduct a search for responsive documents." Id. ¶ 6; Def.'s Mot., Ex. 2, at 8.*fn2 The following day, September 13, the plaintiff received a second letter from the defendant, which said that the plaintiff's FOIA request had been assigned to the defendant's Loan Program Office to conduct a search for responsive documents, and that upon completing the search and reviewing the resulting documents, a final response would be sent to the plaintiff. Def.'s Mot., Ex. 2, at 9. On October 7, 2011, the plaintiff received two compact discs containing records responsive to its FOIA request, as well as a letter stating that additional responsive documents existed and that they were being reviewed in preparation for public release. Compl. ¶ 11.

In December of 2011, the plaintiff brought suit against the defendant in this court. The plaintiff asserts that the defendant has yet to provide it with a full production of documents, and that the defendant has failed to comply with the statutory time limits to send the plaintiff a response regarding its request. Compl. ¶¶ 10-11. In response, the defendant has filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, contending that the plaintiff has not exhausted its administrative remedies. See generally Def.'s Mot. The court now turns to the parties' arguments and the applicable legal standards.

III. ANALYSIS

A. Legal Standard for a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings

Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that "[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." FED. R. CIV. P. 12(c). The moving party must show that no material issue of fact remains to be solved and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Haynesworth v. Miller, 820 F.2d 1245, 1249 n.11(D.C. Cir. 1987), overruled on other grounds by Hartman v. Moore, 547 U.S. 250 (2006). When considering a Rule 12(c) motion, the court will accept as true the allegations in the non-moving party's pleadings, and will draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Haynesworth, 820 F.2d 1249 n.11.

The standard for reviewing a motion for judgment on the pleadings is "virtually identical" to that applied under Rule 12(b)(6). Id. at 1254; see also Qi v. FDIC, 755 F. Supp. 2d 195, 199 (D.D.C. 2010) ("The analysis of a Rule 12(c) motion is essentially the same as that for a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted."). "To survive a[ Rule 12(b)(6)] motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 562 (2007). A claim is facially plausible when the pleaded factual content "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

B. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies Under the Freedom of Information Act Exhaustion of administrative remedies is "required . . . before a party can seek judicial review" in FOIA cases. Dettmann v. United States Dep't of Justice, 802 F.2d 1472, 1477-78 (D.C. Cir. 1986); see also Hidalgo v. FBI, 344 F.3d 1256, 1258-59 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (per curiam). This requirement allows agencies the "opportunity to exercise [their] discretion and expertise on the matter and to make a factual record to support [their] decision." Oglesby v. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 61 (D.C. Cir. 1990). In ...


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