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Rollins v. United States Department of State

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

October 8, 2014

DELORES ANN ROLLINS, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE, Defendant

For DELORES ANN ROLLINS, Plaintiff: Daniel J. Stotter, STOTTER & ASSOCIATES LLC, Corvallis, OR.

For UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE, Defendant: John G. Interrante, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Washington, DC.

Page 547

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

Michael Jordan Rollins died in Taiwan on September 17, 2009. Seeking to learn more about the circumstances of his death, his mother, Plaintiff Delores Ann Rollins, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the United States Department of State. After waiting many months and receiving no response, Rollins filed this suit to compel the agency to produce relevant records. State thereafter produced over 150 records in full and several dozen more with redactions. It now moves for summary judgment on the ground that it has complied with its obligations under FOIA. Plaintiff cross-moves for summary judgment, challenging the agency's response in two facets: she argues that its search for records was inadequate and that it improperly withheld portions of certain documents. Having now reviewed the six remaining contested documents in camera, as well as the parties' briefings and declarations, the Court concludes that both the search and the withholdings were appropriate. It will, accordingly, grant Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and deny Plaintiff's.

I. Background

On October 19, 2012, Plaintiff submitted a FOIA request to the United States Department of State, seeking records related to the death of her son, Michael Jordan Rollins, who had died in Taiwan three years earlier. See Compl., ¶ 14. Although the State Department acknowledged receipt of the request on November 5, 2012, id., ¶ 15, more than ten months later it had yet to produce responsive records or take final action with respect to Rollins's request. Id., ¶ 16. As a result, she filed this suit on September 23, 2013.

Several months later, on January 10, February 7, and February 28, 2014, State produced responsive records to Plaintiff. See Def. Mot., Att. 1 (Declaration of John F. Hackett), Exhs. 4-6 (Letters from Sheryl Walter, Office of Information Programs and Services, Department of State, to Delores Ann Rollins). The final letter, dated February 28, stated that the Department had finished processing the request. See Hackett Decl., Exh. 6. In total, State located 195 responsive documents, 158 of which were produced in their entirety and 37 of which were produced with redactions.

Page 548

See Def. Mot., Statement of Material Facts (SMF), ¶ 23.

Both parties now move for summary judgment. While the adequacy of the Department's search remains contested, the parties have narrowed their dispute on withholdings to portions of only six responsive documents. See Pl. Mot. and Opp. at 2. To aid in its review, the Court ordered State to provide these for in camera review. See September 18, 2014, Minute Order. The Court has now examined the redactions along with the Department's justifications.

II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment may be granted if " the movant shows 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); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895, 369 U.S.App.D.C. 122 (D.C. Cir. 2006). A fact is " material" if it is capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the litigation. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248; Holcomb, 433 F.3d at 895. A dispute is " genuine" if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007); Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248; Holcomb, 433 F.3d at 895. " A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion" by " citing to particular parts of materials in the record" or " showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment. See Brayton v. Office of U.S. Trade Rep., 641 F.3d 521, 527, 395 U.S.App.D.C. 155 (D.C. Cir. 2011). In a FOIA case, the Court may grant summary judgment based solely on information provided in an agency's affidavits or declarations when they " describe 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." Larson v. Dep't of State, 565 F.3d 857, 862, 385 U.S.App.D.C. 394 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). Such affidavits or declarations " are accorded a presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted by purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents." SafeCard Servs., Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197, 1200, 288 U.S.App.D.C. 324 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (internal quotation marks omitted).

III. Analysis

Congress enacted FOIA in order to " pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny." Dep't of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361, 96 S.Ct. 1592, 48 L.Ed.2d 11 (1976) (citation omitted). " The basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed." John Doe Agency v. John Doe Corp., 493 U.S. 146, 152, 110 S.Ct. 471, 107 L.Ed.2d 462 (1989) (citation omitted). The statute provides that " each agency, upon any request for records which (i) reasonably describes such records and (ii) is made in accordance with published rules . . . shall make the

Page 549

records promptly available to any person." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A). Consistent with this statutory mandate, federal courts have jurisdiction to order the production of records that an agency improperly withholds. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); Dep't of Justice v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 755, 109 S.Ct. 1468, 103 L.Ed.2d 774 (1989). " Unlike the review of other agency action that must be upheld if supported by substantial evidence and not arbitrary or capricious, the FOIA expressly places the burden 'on the agency to sustain its action' and directs the district courts to 'determine the matter de novo.'" Reporters Comm., 489 U.S. at 755 (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B)). " At all times courts must bear in mind that FOIA mandates a 'strong presumption in favor of disclosure' . . . ." Nat'l Ass'n of Home Builders v. Norton, 309 F.3d 26, 32, 353 U.S.App.D.C. 374 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (quoting Dep't of State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164, 173, 112 S.Ct. 541, 116 L.Ed.2d 526 (1991)).

As noted previously, there are two issues this Court must decide: first, whether State conducted an adequate search for records, and second, whether it properly withheld portions of six of the responsive ...


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