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Shapiro v. Department of Justice

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

March 31, 2014

RYAN NOAH SHAPIRO, Plaintiff,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For RYAN NOAH SHAPIRO, Plaintiff: Jeffrey Louis Light, LAW OFFICE OF JEFFREY LIGHT, Washington, DC.

For DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant: Dionne S. Shy, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Washington, DC.

OPINION

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PAUL L. FRIEDMAN, United States District Judge.

This is a Freedom of Information Act case brought by plaintiff Ryan Noah Shapiro against the United States Department of Justice. Shapiro has requested information about Aaron Swartz, a recently deceased computer programmer, activist, and doctoral candidate at MIT. It is alleged that Swartz committed suicide after becoming the subject of an intensive federal investigation. This matter is now before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.[1]

I. BACKGROUND

After plaintiff submitted his FOIA request, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a component within the Department of Justice, indicated that it had located 23 pages responsive to plaintiff's request. Hardy Decl., Ex. G at 53-75; see Pl.'s Stmt. Facts ¶ ¶ 5-6. The FBI provided

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four of these pages in full to plaintiff. Pl.'s Stmt. Facts ¶ 5. Seventeen of these pages were withheld in part pursuant to Exemptions 6, 7(C), 7(E), and 7(F) of the FOIA. Pl.'s Stmt. Facts ¶ ¶ 5, 26. Two documents -- a total of four pages -- were withheld as duplicates of documents previously provided. Id. ¶ 6. Plaintiff contends that the FBI improperly withheld information contained in these 23 pages. Specifically, plaintiff argues that the government has improperly withheld information under FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C) and has improperly withheld the duplicate pages. Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J. 5-15.[2] In addition, plaintiff argues that the search undertaken by the FBI was inadequate. Id. at 2-5.

Given the small number of documents at issue in this case, the Court issued an Order on November 1, 2013, directing the government to deliver to the Court for in camera review unredacted copies of the following pages: Swartz-1 to Swartz-7, Swartz-10, Swartz-12 to Swartz-20, and Swartz-22 to Swartz-23. On December 13, 2013, the government delivered hard copies of these documents, in unredacted form, to the undersigned's Chambers and filed a notice of in camera submission on the docket. See Notice. The Court has now reviewed the documents submitted in camera and has concluded that, on the issue of whether the government improperly withheld information in the 23 pages initially released, the defendant's motion for summary judgment should be granted and the plaintiff's cross-motion should be denied.

With two exceptions (Swartz-3A-3B and Swartz-22-23), which the government has withheld in toto on the ground that they are duplicates of documents already disclosed, the documents at issue have all been provided in redacted form. The redactions are of names and telephone numbers. The government has indicated the FOIA exemptions on which it relies for each redaction and the nature of the information redacted. All redacted portions of the documents have been withheld as " clearly unwarranted" and " unwarranted" invasions of privacy pursuant to Exemptions 6 and 7(C), respectively. In addition, after the listed exemption or exemptions invoked with respect to each redaction, the government has also added a number -- 1, 2, 3 or 4 -- and has provided an explanation for each such number through the Declaration of David M. Hardy, an employee of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who identifies himself as the Section Chief of the Record/Information Dissemination Section, Records Management Division, in Winchester, Virginia. See Hardy Decl. ¶ 1. The four sub-categories under Exemptions 6 and 7(C) are characterized as follows: (1) names and/or identifying information of FBI Special Agents and support personnel; (2) names and/or identifying information of third parties who provided information to the FBI; (3) names and/or identifying information of third parties merely mentioned; and (4) name of a non-FBI federal government employee. See id. ¶ ¶ 35-42. The Court has examined the redacted portions of the relevant documents at issue in the context of each overall document and, with these descriptions in mind, has applied the FOIA and the relevant case law.

The Court also has considered the parties' arguments relating to the adequacy of the FBI's search and has carefully examined the representations made by the

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FBI's declarants. The Court is not persuaded that the FBI has conducted " a good faith, reasonable search of those systems of records likely to possess the requested information," as required under the FOIA. See Lardner v. FBI, 852 F.Supp.2d 127, 133 (D.D.C. 2012). It therefore will hold the parties' summary judgment motions in abeyance in part, pending further briefing and additional processing of records, as appropriate.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment in a FOIA Case

" 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). In a FOIA action to compel production of agency 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 has been produced, is unidentifiable, or is wholly exempt from the FOIA's disclosure requirements. Moayedi v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 510 F.Supp.2d 73, 78 (D.D.C. 2007) (citing Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 126, 221 U.S.App.D.C. 347 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). Summary judgment may be based solely on information provided in an agency's supporting affidavits or declarations if they are relatively detailed and when they describe " the documents and the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstrate that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record nor by evidence of agency bad faith." Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738, 211 U.S.App.D.C. 135 (D.C. Cir. 1981); see Beltranena v. Clinton, 770 F.Supp.2d 175, 182 (D.D.C. 2011).

B. Exemptions Invoked

1. Exemption 6

Exemption 6 protects " personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). The term " similar files" is construed broadly and is " intended to cover detailed Government records on an individual which can be identified as applying to that individual." U.S. Dep't of State v. Washington Post Co., 456 U.S. 595, 602, 102 S.Ct. 1957, 72 L.Ed.2d 358 (1982) (citation omitted). " The information in the file 'need not be intimate' for the file to satisfy the standard, and the threshold for determining whether information applies to a particular individual is minimal." Milton v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 783 F.Supp.2d 55, ...


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