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Neuman v. United States

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

September 30, 2014

CHARLES NEUMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants

Page 417

For CHARLES NEUMAN, Plaintiff, Pro se, Welch, WV.

For UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, UNITED STATES IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOM ENFORCEMENT, Defendants: Wyneva Johnson, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE FOR D.C., Washington, DC.

Page 418

MEMORANDUM OPINION

KETANJI BROWN JACKSON, United States District Judge.

Pro se Plaintiff Charles Neuman (" Plaintiff" or " Neuman" ) has brought the instant action against the United States, the Department of Justice, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (collectively " Defendants" ) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (2012), to pursue records related to his 2009 criminal conviction for a series of crimes arising out of the operation of a counterfeiting ring. Defendants provided certain documents to Neuman in response to a FOIA request, but some of the pages were heavily redacted. Neuman's lawsuit alleges that Defendants have wrongfully withheld information contained in twenty-five of the responsive documents.

Before this Court at present is Defendants' motion for summary judgment, which maintains that all responsive documents have been released to Plaintiff and

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that Defendants were entitled to withhold portions of the documents under FOIA Exemptions 6, 7(C), 7(E), and 7(F), and also under Privacy Act Exemption (j)(2). In his opposition, Plaintiff responds only to Defendants' invocation of Exemptions 7(C) and 7(E), leaving this Court to conclude that Plaintiff has conceded the applicability of FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(F) and Privacy Act Exemption (j)(2). Moreover, while this Court is persuaded that FOIA Exemption 7(E) has been properly applied, this Court is not in a position to determine the validity of Defendant's invocation of Exemption 7(C)--the paucity of the record and the unsatisfactory nature of Defendants' Vaughn index render it impossible to determine whether that exemption is appropriate. Consequently, Defendants' motion for summary judgment will be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART, and this Court will order Defendants to submit for in camera review certain documents--in both redacted and unredacted form--as well as an updated Vaughn index that more precisely lays out the reason behind each redaction. As the separate order accompanying this memorandum opinion establishes, once Defendants have satisfied these threshold requirements, they will be permitted to resubmit their motion for summary judgment with respect to the withholdings that are based on Exemption 7(C).

I. BACKGROUND

The Freedom of Information Act request underlying the present litigation stems from Plaintiff's conviction in January of 2009 of a host of crimes related to the operation of a counterfeit ring, including the crime of being a felon-in-possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § § 922(g)(1). (Compl., ECF No. 1, at 6.)[1] On May 21, 2012, Plaintiff filed a FOIA request with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (" ICE" ), which was the investigating agency behind Plaintiff's 2009 convictions. ( Id. ¶ 6.) Plaintiff requested " all information in [ICE's] possession that involves [ICE's] investigation of me for any and all criminal conduct[,]" as well as all information in the agency's possession relating to the particular case that resulted in Plaintiff's 2009 conviction. ( Id. ¶ 7.)

Plaintiff's belief that certain potentially exculpatory evidence was unlawfully withheld during his trial in 2009 apparently was the motivation behind this FOIA request. In particular, Plaintiff contends that a witness at his trial had provided information to ICE officials during the pre-trial investigation that suggested Plaintiff could not have been in possession of the gun that led to his conviction of being a felon-in-possession of a firearm ( id. ¶ ¶ 12-13), and that this exculpatory information was not provided to Plaintiff prior to trial, in violation of his statutory and constitutional rights ( id. ¶ 15).[2] Plaintiff has sought to utilize the FOIA process as a means of unearthing that allegedly exculpatory evidence.

On October 15, 2012, ICE released 80 documents responsive to Plaintiff's FOIA request, totaling 207 pages of responsive material. (FOIA Response Letter (Oct. 15, 2012), Ex. 4 to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 17-1, at 72.) Every page was partially redacted. ( Id.) ICE claimed that

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these redactions were based on four statutory disclosure exemptions: FOIA's Exemptions 6, 7(C), and 7(E) and the Privacy Act's Exemption (j)(2). ( Id. at 72-73.) On November 5, 2012, Plaintiff filed an administrative appeal, challenging the heavy redaction of twenty-five of the released documents, but ICE determined on review that those documents were properly redacted. (FOIA Response Letter (Jan. 8, 2013), Ex. 7 to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 17-1 at 81-82).[3] Thereafter, Plaintiff filed the instant FOIA lawsuit, disputing the validity of ICE's redactions.[4]

On December 16, 2013, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. (Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. (" Defs.' Mot." ), ECF No. 17.) This motion includes an affidavit and various exhibits that are intended to clarify the reasoning behind the disputed redactions. First, Defendants argue that the disclosure provisions of the Privacy Act do not apply to the particular records at issue here and thus full disclosure is not required. (Defs.' Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (" Defs.' Mem." ), ECF No. 17, at 21-22.) Second, Defendants assert that FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C) are applicable because " the substantial privacy interests of law enforcement agents and other individuals" outweigh " the non-existent public interest." ( Id. at 29.) Third, Defendants assert that they properly withheld various " database codes, case numbers, and numeric references" under Exemption 7(E). ( Id. at 30.) Finally, Defendants claim that any information identifying third parties falls under Exemption 7(F) because such information " could put them and their families at great risk of physical danger." ( Id. at 32.)

Plaintiff submitted his opposition to Defendants' summary judgment motion on February 10, 2014, arguing that there remains a genuine dispute regarding whether Defendants properly invoked FOIA Exemptions 7(C) and 7(E). (Pl.'s Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. (" Pl.'s Opp'n" ), ECF No. 19, at 1.) Defendants' summary judgment ...


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