United States District Court, D. Columbia.
For JUDICIAL WATCH, INC., Plaintiff: Jason B. Aldrich, JUDICIAL WATCH, INC., Washington, DC.
For UNITED STATES OFFICE OF SPECIAL COUNSEL, Defendant: Benton Gregory Peterson, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Civil Division, Washington, DC.
JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.
Plaintiff Judicial Watch, Inc., filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the United States Office of Special Counsel seeking any records related to an investigation of former senior White House officials Jim Messina and Rahm Emanuel. After a thorough and comprehensive search, OSC released numerous responsive records in full and withheld all or parts of others. Believing Defendant's search to be inadequate, Judicial Watch brought this suit, and OSC now moves for summary judgment. As the search was plainly sufficient, the Court will grant the Motion.
Usually, a FOIA case starts with a FOIA request. This one, however, starts a bit further back. In June 2010, Judicial Watch submitted a complaint to OSC requesting an investigation of Messina and Emanuel for potential violations of the Hatch Act, which regulates partisan political activity by executive-branch officials. See Opp., Exh. 1 (June 15, 2010, letter from Thomas Fitton to William Reukauf). After three years without any word from Defendant, Plaintiff sent a letter inquiring what, if any, action had been taken on its request. See id., Exh. 2 (May 23, 2013, letter from Thomas Fitton to Carolyn Lerner). A week later, the agency responded, explaining that because Emanuel and Messina were no longer employed by the federal government, the complaints against them " ha[d] been closed without further action." Id., Exh. 3 (May 30, 2103, letter from Carolyn Lerner to Thomas Fitton).
In response, Judicial Watch submitted a FOIA request to Defendant seeking " [a]ny and all records concerning, or related to the request for investigation filed by Judicial Watch with the Hatch Act Unit on June 15, 2010 concerning federal employees Jim Messina and Rahm Emanuel." Def. Statement of Undisputed Facts, ¶ 1. A year later, on May 25, 2014 -- before OSC had released any responsive records -- Plaintiff filed this Complaint. See ECF No. 1. On September 22, 2014, during the pendency of this action, the agency responded to Judicial Watch's request: it identified 645 pages of responsive records, 260 of which were withheld in full, 233 released in part, and 152 released in full. See Mot., Exh. 3 (Vaughn Index).
OSC now moves for summary judgment. In opposition, Plaintiff does not object to any of Defendant's withholdings. See Opp. at 3. Judicial Watch does, however, challenge the scope of OSC's search for responsive records. The Court turns to that claim now.
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 ...