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Hall & Assocs. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

December 31, 2014

HALL & ASSOCIATES, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, Defendant

Page 41

For HALL AND ASSOCIATES, Plaintiff: Philip D. Rosenman, LEAD ATTORNEY, HALL & ASSOCIATES, Washington, DC.

For ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, Defendant: Jeremy S. Simon, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Washington, DC.

Page 42

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JOHN D. BATES, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Hall & Associates, a Washington, D.C., firm, recently won a lawsuit for its clients against the Environmental Protection Agency (" EPA" or " the Agency" ), the defendant in this case. See Iowa League of Cities v. EPA, 711 F.3d 844, 878 (8th Cir. 2013). That success led to this dispute. Hall sought access under the Freedom of Information Act (" FOIA" ) to EPA documents regarding the effect of its clients' victory (e.g., will the decision apply only in the Eighth Circuit or more broadly?), and the Agency responded to Hall's request, producing some documents but withholding many others. Hall considered this response inadequate, and it brought the present case to force EPA to be more forthcoming. The government, for its part, has filed a motion to dismiss Hall's complaint. Upon consideration of the parties' filings,[1] and for the reasons explained below, the Court will grant EPA's motion and dismiss this case.

BACKGROUND

This case begins where another ends. In March 2013, the Eighth Circuit decided Iowa League of Cities, a suit challenging two " regulatory requirements with respect to water treatment processes at municipally owned sewer systems." 711 F.3d at 854. Hall--representing the League, see Compl. [ECF No. 1] at 2--argued that EPA's regulations were invalid, either because the Agency lacked statutory authority to impose them, or because it adopted them in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act. See Iowa League of Cities, 711 F.3d at 854. And the Eighth Circuit agreed, vacating the rules. Id. at 878. The reach of this victory, however, was unclear. Although EPA repeatedly suggested that the case's impact would be modest, Hall sought information from EPA regarding its " intentions for implementing the . . . decision" and whether " the Agency would be applying [it] nationwide." Compl. at 2. Hall alleges, for example, that " top officials" announced at public meetings that the Agency planned " to limit the decision in the 8th Circuit," while another administrator circulated a letter to explain that " [t]he Eighth Circuit's decision applies as binding precedent in the Eighth Circuit." Id.

In light of EPA's comments, Hall sent a series of messages to the Agency, requesting documents under FOIA that might reveal the government's official position vis-à-vis Iowa League of Cities. Hall's original request cast a wide net, seeking information from not only EPA headquarters, but also the Agency's ten regional offices. See Ex. to Compl. [ECF No. 1-3] (" Ex." ) at 8-9. Hall later amended its request three times: the first amendment slightly expanded the information requested, see id. at 11-12 (requesting additional information regarding a recent meeting between " EPA . . ., the States, and the regulated community" ); the second

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amendment went the other direction, narrowing the categories of information requested from EPA, see id. at 17-18 (" Please provide only the following records . . ." ); and the third amendment went further still, substantially narrowing the geographic scope of the request by limiting the search to documents housed at EPA headquarters, see id. at 23 (" All the Regional FOIA[] requests . . . are hereby withdrawn." ). The Agency estimated that the requested search (as amended) would cost $1,073.25, id. at 25, and Hall agreed to pay EPA's asking price--even if begrudgingly.[2] The quoted cost, the firm complained, was " inconceivable." Id. at 28.

Once the parties had settled on the scope (and price tag) for Hall's request, EPA searched its files and found several documents it considered responsive to the request. In its " interim, partial response" dated December 24, 2013, the Agency released six documents but declined to produce twenty-one more, claiming that the withheld documents fell within various exemptions under FOIA. Id. at 30-34. EPA later supplemented this response with a final letter on January 29, 2014. Id. at 50. The Agency did not release any documents in this second response, but it did identify forty-nine additional responsive documents that it chose to withhold because the documents were either pre-decisional or attorney-client privileged (and, thus, exempt from disclosure under 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5)) or investigatory documents collected for law-enforcement purposes (and, thus, exempt under 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)). See id. at 51, 52-59. EPA also notified Hall that its search for these seventy-odd documents was slightly cheaper than expected, and it charged the firm only $1,015.75. Id. at 51.

Hall formally appealed EPA's response on February 25, 2014. Hall's appeal letter highlighted two concerns regarding the Agency's efforts.[3] First, Hall complained that the " documents produced by [EPA] Headquarters did not respond to the FOIA request." Id. at 62. And second, Hall argued that--because EPA's search had not revealed any responsive documents--the final bill for its efforts was " inappropriate and excessive." Id. at 63. Hall therefore vowed " not [to] pay the Agency for [its] non-responsive, frivolous response." Id.

A month later, EPA denied Hall's appeal--for the most part. The Agency explained its decision by first noting what Hall had not appealed in the firm's February letter. " Nowhere in your letter of appeal," EPA wrote, " do you mention or challenge the FOIA exemptions which were the basis for withholding of documents and portions of documents by [the Agency]. Nor do you raise concerns regarding the sufficiency of the search conducted in order to provide documents to you." Id. at 66. And regarding what Hall did appeal, EPA rejected the firm's no-responsive-documents claim, concluding that the records " explicitly relate to the subject of [Hall's] request, i.e., Agency action

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subsequent and related to the Iowa League of Cities decision by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals." Id. at 67. Hall did not leave the appeal empty-handed, however. EPA offered to reduce its final bill to $903.75--a $112 discount.[4] Id.

Still unsatisfied, Hall answered EPA's March 2014 letter with the present complaint. Hall now alleges that EPA violated FOIA when it (1) " fail[ed] to provide a legitimate basis for withholding[] responsive documents" ; (2) " fail[ed] to fully and completely respond to [the firm's] FOIA request" ; and (3) charged the firm an " excessive and inappropriate" fee. Compl. at 9. In response, the Agency has moved to dismiss Hall's complaint, because (it argues) Hall failed to exhaust at least one of its FOIA claims before resorting to the federal courts, and because its complaint otherwise fails to state a claim. See Gov't's Mot. at 6-8.

DISCUSSION

I. Motion to Dismiss


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