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Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Department of Navy

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 19, 2013

JUDICIAL WATCH, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY, Defendant

Decided September 18, 2013

For JUDICIAL WATCH, INC., Plaintiff: Christopher Alan Fedeli, Paul J. Orfanedes, LEAD ATTORNEYS, JUDICIAL WATCH, INC., Washington, DC.

For DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY, Defendant: Marcia Berman, LEAD ATTORNEY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Civil Division, Federal Programs Branch, Washington, DC.

OPINION

Page 2

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RICHARD J. LEON, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Judicial Watch Inc. (" Judicial Watch" or " plaintiff" ) filed the instant action against the Department of the Navy (" Navy" or " defendant" ) on July 18, 2012, challenging the Navy's redaction of documents produced in response to plaintiff's Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (" FOIA" ), request for records and communications related to any funeral ceremony held for Osama bin Laden prior to his burial at sea on the USS Carl Vinson on May 2, 2011. See Compl. [Dkt. #1]. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Upon consideration of the parties' pleadings, relevant law, and the entire record in this case, the Court GRANTS defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Dkt. #10] and DENIES plaintiff's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment [Dkt. #14].

BACKGROUND

Judicial Watch, a non-profit organization that promotes government accountability, submitted a FOIA request to the Navy on March 20, 2012, seeking two categories of documents: (1) all records used or relied on during any funeral ceremony for Osama bin Laden's burial at sea on the USS Carl Vinson; and (2) any communications between government officials regarding any such funeral ceremony. See Decl. of Lieutenant General Curtis M. Scaparrotti (" Scaparrotti Decl." ) [Dkt. #10-1] ¶ 3. The Navy conducted a search for responsive records which located no documents from the first category and ten documents from the second category. Id. ¶ 4. Specifically, the Navy located ten email chains, totaling 31 pages, regarding preparation for and execution of Osama bin Laden's burial at sea. Id. After conducting a line-by-line review of the responsive documents, the Navy redacted certain information before producing the documents to plaintiff in November 2012. Id. The redactions were made pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 1, 3, 5, and 6. Id.; see 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1), (3), (5), (6).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

" FOIA cases are typically and appropriately decided on motions for summary judgment." Judicial Watch, Inc. v. DOD, 12-CV-49 RC, 963 F.Supp.2d 6, 2013 WL 4536118, at *4 (D.D.C. Aug. 28, 2013) . Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, stipulations, affidavits, and admissions in a case 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); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The court may accept as true factual assertions in the moving party's declarations unless the opposing party submits its own declarations or documentary evidence to the contrary. Neal v. Kelly, 963 F.2d 453, 456, 295 U.S.App. D.C. 350 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

Page 3

The court must accept as true the evidence of, and draw " all justifiable inferences" in favor of the party opposing summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A genuine issue exists only where " the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248.

In the FOIA context, the government must demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute regarding the adequacy of its search for or production of responsive records. Nat'l Whistleblower Ctr. v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 849 F.Supp.2d 13, 21-22 (D.D.C. 2012). Because of the information asymmetry between FOIA plaintiffs and the government, courts require the government to provide a detailed description of any information withheld under any of the FOIA exemptions enumerated in 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of Army, 79 F.3d 1172, 1178, 316 U.S.App. D.C. 372 (D.C. Cir. 1996). The government typically presents its justification for withholding certain information in a declaration or affidavit referred to as a " Vaughn index" after the case of Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820, 157 ...


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