United States District Court, D. Columbia.
November 4, 2014
FLORENT BAYALA, Plaintiff,
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY, Defendant
For FLORENT BAYALA, Plaintiff: David Laundon Cleveland, LEAD ATTORNEY, CATHOLIC CHARITIES, Washington, DC.
For UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY, Office of the General Counsel, Defendant: Kenneth A. Adebonojo, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Washington, DC.
Re Document Nos.: 14, 18
MEMORANDUM & ORDER
RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge.
Granting Defendant's Motion To Dismiss Or, In The Alternative, For Summary Judgment; And Denying Plaintiff's Motion For Summary Judgment
Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (" FOIA" ), 5 U.S.C. § 552, Florent
Bayala (" Bayala" ) requested various materials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (" DHS" ). After DHS disclosed certain documents but withheld others, Bayala filed the instant action to compel DHS to explain its reasons, such that he could file a " meaningful" administrative appeal. Before this Court are DHS's motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment (ECF No. 14) and Bayala's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 18). Having reviewed the parties' submissions, this Court grants DHS's motion and denies Bayala's motion, and dismisses the complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.
Bayala is a citizen of Burkina Faso seeking asylum in the United States. See Compl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 1. In November 2013, Bayala submitted a FOIA request seeking an asylum officer's notes, the officer's Assessment to Refer memorandum, and other previously undisclosed materials. See Compl. ¶ ¶ 24-25; FOIA Request, Compl. Ex. 1, ECF No. 1-1. The following month, a DHS representative sent Bayala responsive information on a compact disc, along with a cover letter. Compl. ¶ 27. The letter stated that DHS had decided to withhold certain responsive materials in part or in full, and to submit others to the Department of State and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (" ICE" ) for further consideration. See Letter from Jill A. Eggleston, Director, FOIA Operations, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to David L. Cleveland, Counsel for Florent Bayala (Dec. 17, 2013), Compl. Ex. 2, ECF No. 1-2 (" DHS Letter" ). The asylum officer's notes and Assessment to Refer were withheld in full, and the letter explained that such documents " contain no reasonably segregable portion(s) of non-exempt information." Id. Moreover, the letter listed and described four statutory exemptions that it claimed were " applicable" to the withheld information. Lastly, the cover letter advised Bayala of his right to an administrative appeal. Id.
Bayala then filed the instant action without pursuing an administrative appeal. Bayala's complaint claims that DHS's " vague and cryptic" cover letter rendered an administrative appeal " illusory and a waste of time," such that DHS is " thwarting" Bayala's right to appeal. Compl. ¶ 3. The complaint's first cause of action alleges
that DHS's letter provided inadequate " reasons" for the withholding determinations, in violation of 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(i). Compl. ¶ 33. The complaint's second cause of action alleges that DHS failed to explain why requested information was not " reasonably segregable" under 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). Compl. ¶ 40. Accordingly, Bayala asks this Court to order DHS to " re-write" the cover letter. Id. at 13. The revised letter would describe the documents submitted to the Department of State and ICE and provide " the real reasons" why the asylum officer's notes and Assessment to Refer were withheld and why information was not segregable, such that Bayala could " make a meaningful administrative appeal." Id. Bayala further asks this Court to declare that the cover letter violates FOIA, to enjoin DHS from issuing similar letters in the future, and to award reasonable attorney's fees and costs. Id.
After Bayala initiated this lawsuit, DHS voluntarily released the asylum officer's notes along with other documents. See Def.'s Ex. B, ECF No. 14-2. As a result, Bayala now seeks DHS's reasons for withholding in full " just one document" --the Assessment to Refer. Pl.'s Mem. Opp'n DHS's Mot. Summ. J. 16, ECF No. 16. DHS has filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. ECF No. 14. Bayala has moved for summary judgment. ECF No. 18.
As a general matter, plaintiffs challenging an agency's response to a FOIA request must exhaust the administrative appeals process before seeking relief in court. See Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 61-62, 287 U.S.App.D.C. 126 (D.C. Cir. 1990). Exhaustion enables an agency " to exercise its discretion and expertise . . . and to make a factual record to support its decision." Id. at 61. Furthermore, with the benefit of an administrative appeal, agencies can " correct or rethink initial misjudgments or errors" and promote uniformity in its adjudications. Id. at 64-65.
" [C]ourts in this Circuit analyze failure to exhaust administrative remedies motions under Rule 12(b)(6)" because exhaustion
is an element of a plaintiff's claim. Ayuda, Inc. v. Fed. Trade Comm'n, No. 13-cv-1266, 70 F.Supp.3d 247, 2014 WL 4829574, at *5 (D.D.C. Sept. 30, 2014) (citing Hidalgo v. Fed. Bureau of Investigation, 344 F.3d 1256, 1260, 358 U.S.App.D.C. 104 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (vacating grant of summary judgment and remanding with instructions to dismiss complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to exhaust administrative remedies)). " [A]s a jurisprudential doctrine, failure to exhaust precludes judicial review if 'the purposes of exhaustion' and the 'particular administrative scheme' support such a bar." Hidalgo, 344 F.3d at 1258-59 (quoting Oglesby, 920 F.2d at 61). The exhaustion requirement is triggered so long as the agency's initial response satisfies basic requirements, such as containing a statement of the agency's " determination and the reasons therefor." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(i); Oglesby, 920 F.2d at 65.
DHS argues that Bayala's complaint must be dismissed because he has failed to exhaust administrative remedies. Def.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 6-7. Bayala does not contest the general rule that exhaustion is required. Nor does he dispute the fact that he did not pursue an administrative appeal prior to commencing this action. See supra note 4. Rather, Bayala contends that in this particular case, lack of exhaustion should not prevent him from obtaining judicial relief.
Bayala first submits that the " purposes of exhaustion" would not be served in this case, Hidalgo, 344 F.3d at 1259, because DHS's imprecise initial response, if allowed to stand, would prevent Bayala from advancing " targeted and cogent arguments" and thereby preclude a " meaningful" administrative appeal, Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 4-5. This Court disagrees. Bayala cites cases faulting agencies for inadequate reasons for withholding information, but in all of those cases, the FOIA requesters had exhausted administrative remedies, thereby affording the agency the opportunity " to exercise its discretion and expertise," " to make a factual record," and to " correct or rethink initial misjudgments or errors." Oglesby, 920 F.2d at 61, 64. Moreover, Bayala does not allege that DHS would " very likely" uphold its initial decision on appeal, such that requiring exhaustion would be " futil[e] and inefficien[t]." Ayuda, 2014 WL 4829574, at *7. At bottom, Bayala assumes that the " purposes of exhaustion" would be served only if he could make " targeted" arguments in an administrative appeal. He fails to cite any authority for
this proposition or to explain why an appeal from DHS's letter, as written, would necessarily preclude DHS from " exercis[ing] its discretion and expertise" or " mak[ing] a factual record to support its decision." Oglesby, 920 F.2d at 61. In the end, Bayala contends that this Court's " broad equitable powers" can excuse him from the exhaustion requirement, but he has not demonstrated how such an equitable remedy would further FOIA's purposes. Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 6-7.
Bayala further contends that DHS failed to provide " the reasons" for its determination, in violation of 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(i). Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 7. This Court concludes that the cover letter's " reasons" were sufficient to require Bayala to file an administrative appeal. The letter explained that DHS decided to withhold certain documents in full because they " contain no reasonably segregable portion(s) of non-exempt information." DHS Letter. DHS also enumerated FOIA exemptions that it concluded were " applicable" to withheld information--§ 552(b)(5), (b)(6), (b)(7)(C), and (b)(7)(E). Id. Lastly, DHS explained its reasons for referring certain documents to the Department of State and to ICE--to enable those agencies to provide a " direct response" to Bayala. Id.
In contending that DHS's initial response must explain in greater detail the agency's rationale for applying certain exemptions, Bayala fails to recognize that if the case were to return to the courts, DHS would not be bound by its initially cited exemptions at all. See Gula v. Meese, 699 F.Supp. 956, 959 n.2 (D.D.C. 1988) (" [T]he
defendant in a FOIA case may assert new exemptions at the federal district court level . . . not previously asserted at the administrative level, even if the circumstances have not changed in the interim." (citing Jordan v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 591 F.2d 753, 779, 192 U.S.App.D.C. 144 (D.C. Cir. 1978))). Put differently, the administrative process need not explore all issues or arguments. Nonetheless, Congress has required FOIA requesters to exhaust this process, so long as the agency's initial response contains " reasons" and meets other basic requirements. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(i). If Bayala was unhappy with the reasons proffered by DHS, he could have registered this complaint in an administrative appeal rather than filing this action prematurely.
In sum, DHS has complied with its statutory obligations, and Bayala must do likewise by exhausting administrative remedies before seeking judicial review.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendant's motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment (ECF No. 14) is GRANTED, and Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 18) is DENIED.
It is hereby ORDERED that Plaintiff's complaint is dismissed without prejudice.