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Brustein & Manasevit, PLLC v. United States Dep't of Education

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

March 31, 2014

BRUSTEIN & MANASEVIT, PLLC, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Defendant

For Brustein & Manasevit, Pllc, Plaintiff: Erin Dorris Auerbach, BRUSTEIN & MANASEVIT, PLLC, Washington, DC, USA.

For United States Department of Education, Defendant: Wyneva Johnson, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE FOR D.C., Washington, DC, USA.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION

KETANJI BROWN JACKSON, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Brustein & Manasevit, PLLC (" Brustein" or " Plaintiff" ) filed a complaint against the United States Department of Education (" DOE" or " Defendant" ) under the Freedom of Information Act (" FOIA" ), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (2014), on May 15, 2013,.

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( See Complaint (" Compl." ), ECF No. 1.)[1] The complaint seeks injunctive and declaratory relief in the form of a court order compelling DOE to release records that pertain to a computer program--known as the " State and Local Educational Agencies Risk Model" (" Risk Model" )--that DOE uses to identify state and local education agencies that are at risk of misusing federal funds. ( Id. ¶ 7.) DOE initially withheld all responsive records; however, after the complaint was filed, DOE released in their entirety the documents that the agency had found in response to Plaintiff's FOIA request. (Def.'s Statement of Material Facts as to Which There is no Genuine Dispute (" Def.'s Facts" ), ECF No. 8 at 3-4, ¶ 2.)[2] DOE then filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, or in the alternative, motion for summary judgment--the pleading that is before this Court today. ( See (Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Mot. for Summ. J. (" Def.'s Mem." ), ECF No. 8, at 6-13.)

In its motion, DOE argues that the complaint must be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) on the grounds that the agency's production of documents has mooted this matter. ( Id. at 9-11.) Alternatively, DOE maintains that summary judgment should be entered in its favor because there is no genuine issue of material fact regarding the reasonableness and adequacy of its search for responsive records. ( Id. at 11-13.) In opposition to DOE's motion, Plaintiff maintains that the search was inadequate and the case is not moot, because the documents that DOE provided suggest that additional (unreleased) records responsive to the FOIA request exist. (Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. to Dismiss (" Pl.'s Opp'n" ), ECF No. 9-1, at 3-6.) Upon consideration of the motion and associated submissions from the parties, the entire record, and the applicable law, and for the reasons explained below, the Court rejects Defendant's argument that the complaint must be dismissed as moot, but agrees that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment because the agency's search for records was reasonable and adequate. Accordingly, Defendant's motion is GRANTED, and summary judgment will be entered in its favor with respect to the one and only count of the complaint. A separate order consistent with this opinion will follow.

I. BACKGROUND

In November of 2012, DOE's Office of the Inspector General (" OIG" ) released a semi-annual report to Congress, in order to update lawmakers on " the activities and accomplishments of [the OIG.]" (Compl. Ex. 1 (OIG Semiannual Report (" OIG Report" )), ECF No. 1-2, at 2.)[3] In this report, the OIG affirmed its " commitment to promoting accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness in our oversight of [DOE's] programs and operations[,]" ( id. at 2), and described the Risk Model as one of the " data analytic tools" that the OIG had

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developed to promote this goal ( id. at 18).[4] According to the report, OIG staff members use the Risk Model to " better identify which SEAs [state education agencies] and LEAs [local educational agencies] are at higher risk" of misusing federal education grants and other sources of federal education funding. ( Id. )

On December 7, 2012, Plaintiff submitted a FOIA request to DOE. ( See Compl. Ex. 2, ECF No. 1-3, at 1.) The request specifically referenced the OIG Report's statement regarding use of the Risk Model, and stated: " I am requesting a complete copy of this State and Local Educational Agencies Risk Model[,]" or " [i]f a copy of the model is not available, I request a complete description of the State and Local Educational Agencies Risk Model." ( Id. ) DOE confirmed receipt of Plaintiff's FOIA request on December 11, 2012. (Compl. ¶ 9.)

After receiving the FOIA request, DOE searched its databases for responsive documents. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 2.) As a result of this search, DOE was able to identify three documents, totaling 16 pages, that in DOE's view " provide[d] a complete description" of the Risk Model. ( Id. )[5] DOE refused to produce these documents, however, citing FOIA Exemptions 5 and 7(E), see 5 U.S.C. § § 552(b)(5), (b)(7)(E), as the bases for its decision. (Compl. ¶ 10; see also Compl. Ex. 4, ECF No. 1-5.) Plaintiff filed a timely administrative appeal of DOE's decision to withhold the documents (Compl. Ex. 5, ECF No 1-6), which was denied on February 13, 2013 (Compl. Ex. 6, ECF No. 1-7). Plaintiff then filed the instant complaint, alleging ...


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