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Wetzel v. United States Department of Veterans Affairs

United States District Court, District Circuit

June 11, 2013

ADAM WETZEL, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JOHN D. BATES, District Judge.

This case arises out of duplicate requests made under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") to the defendant U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA"). Plaintiff Adam Wetzel is a resident of the District of Columbia whose attorneys made two FOIA requests seeking information related to other pending litigation involving Wetzel. The attorneys did not obtain the desired information, and Wetzel filed suit in this Court. Wetzel seeks, among other things, declaratory relief that the agency has denied his request and an order compelling the agency to produce the relevant documents. The VA has moved to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that Wetzel did not make a request within the meaning of FOIA and therefore lacks standing to challenge the VA's actions. The motion to dismiss will be granted.

BACKGROUND

Wetzel's attorney Charles Daugherty contacted the VA in writing to request documents under FOIA on March 6, 2012. See Ex. A to Compl. [Docket Entry 1-1] (Aug. 14, 2012). Specifically, he sought legal documents regarding the purchase of Wetzel's condominium, which was funded by a VA mortgage. See id. The letter further indicated that the "requests are sought pursuant to litigation in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Wetzel v. Capital City Real Estate, Case Number: 2011 CA 006131 B." Id . Daugherty provided his own name as "[r]equester's [n]ame" and wrote in the first line that "the undersigned is seeking particular records within the possession of the Department of Veterans Affairs." Id . Only Daugherty signed the letter. Id.

The VA responded to Daugherty acknowledging receipt of his FOIA request. See Ex. B to Compl. [Docket Entry 1-2] (Aug. 14, 2012). The letter apprised Daugherty that the particular office that received his request did not have the records and that it was referring the request to a different VA office, the Veterans Benefits Administration. See id. The letter also provided contact information for Daugherty to follow up with the request at the Veterans Benefits Administration. See id.

Daugherty's colleague Jimmy Ray Howell, Jr., filed an essentially duplicate FOIA request on April 30, 2012. See Ex. C to Compl. [Docket Entry 1-3] (Aug. 14, 2012). Howell asked for the same records as Daugherty had, but Howell's request contained an additional line that "[t]he requester law firm represents the veteran in connection with a dispute against the property builder in litigation pending in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia, captioned as Adam Wetzel v. Capital City Real Estate, No. 2011 CA 006131 B." Id . Like Daugherty, Howell gave his own name as "[r]equester's [n]ame." Howell also wrote in the first line that "the undersigned is seeking particular records within the possession of the Department of Veterans Affairs, " id., and only Howell - not Wetzel - signed the request. See id.

The VA contacted Howell, stating that his request was a duplicate of Daugherty's original March 6, 2012, request. See Ex. D to Compl. [Docket Entry 1-4] (Aug. 14, 2012). Accordingly, the agency notified Howell that it was closing his April 30, 2012, request. See id.

The agency then informed Daugherty that it needed authorization from the person whom the records concerned (Wetzel) in order to proceed with the FOIA request. See Ex. E to Compl. [Docket Entry 1-5] (Aug. 14, 2012). Wetzel signed a release form on June 12, 2012. See Ex. F to Compl. [Docket Entry 1-6] (Aug. 14, 2012). On the form, Wetzel listed Howell and Ian Stumpf (another attorney and colleague of Daugherty and Howell) as persons to whom he authorized the VA to disclose his personal information; Wetzel did not list Daugherty. See id. Stumpf emailed Wetzel's signed release form to the VA on June 12, 2012. See Ex. G to Compl. [Docket Entry 1-7] (Aug. 14, 2012).

After receiving no further response from the VA, Howell sent an email initiating an appeal with the VA. See Ex. H to Compl. [Docket Entry 1-8] (Aug. 14, 2012). In that email, Howell stated that "the undersigned represents Mr. Adam Wetzel in connection with the above-referenced appeal" and alleged that the agency "has constructively denied Mr. Wetzel's FOIA request." Id.

Wetzel commenced this action on August 14, 2012, alleging that the agency constructively denied the FOIA requests and that the agency further denied the appeal Howell initiated. The VA filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), arguing that Wetzel does not have standing because he did not make the FOIA requests.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

"[I]n passing on a motion to dismiss, whether on the ground of lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter or for failure to state a cause of action, the allegations of the complaint should be construed favorably to the pleader." Scheuer v. Rhodes , 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974); see also Leatherman v. Tarrant Cnty. Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit , 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993). Therefore, the factual allegations must be presumed true, and plaintiffs must be given every favorable inference that may be drawn from the allegations of fact. See Scheuer , 416 U.S. at 236; Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc. , 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000). However, the Court need not accept as true "a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, " nor inferences that are unsupported by the facts set out in the complaint. Trudeau v. FTC , 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain , 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)) (internal quotations marks omitted).

Under Rule 12(b)(1), the party seeking to invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court - Wetzel here - bears the burden of establishing that the court has jurisdiction. See US Ecology, Inc. v. Dep't of the Interior , 231 F.3d 20, 24 (D.C. Cir. 2000); see also Grand Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police v. Ashcroft , 185 F.Supp.2d 9, 13 (D.D.C. 2001) (a court has an "affirmative obligation to ensure that it is acting within the scope of its jurisdictional authority"). "[P]laintiff's factual allegations in the complaint... will bear closer scrutiny in resolving a 12(b)(1) motion' than in resolving a 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim." Grand Lodge , 185 F.Supp.2d at 13-14 (omission in original) (quoting 5A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure ยง 1350 (2d ed. 1987)). Additionally, a court may consider material other than the allegations of the complaint in determining whether it has jurisdiction to hear the case, as long as it still accepts the factual allegations in ...


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