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Pinson v. United States DOJ

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

February 10, 2015

JEREMY PINSON, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, et al., Defendants

Jeremy Pinson, Plaintiff, Pro se, Springfield, MO USA.

For U.S. Department of Justice, Charles E. Samuels, Jr., John Dignam, Defendants: Damon William Taaffe, Eric Joseph Young, Theresa Ekeoma Dike, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Carl Ezekiel Ross, Washington, DC USA.

For U.S. Marshal Service, Office of The Inspector General, Office of The Attorney General, Office of The Inspector General, Office of The Deputy Attorney General, Office of The Associate Attorney General, National Security Division, Office of Professional Responsibility, Defendants: Damon William Taaffe, Eric Joseph Young, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Washington, DC USA.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT Re Document No.: 66

RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Jeremy Pinson is an inmate at MCFP Springfield, an administrative security federal medical center located in Missouri. While in prison, Mr. Pinson filed Freedom of Information Act (" FOIA" ), 5 U.S.C. § 552, requests with several components of the U.S. Department of Justice (" DOJ" ). In certain cases, the DOJ asked Mr. Pinson to clarify his records requests, told him that it could not find records that are responsive to his requests, or informed him that the records he sought were exempt

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from disclosure by law. Mr. Pinson disagreed with some of these determinations, so he filed a complaint claiming that the DOJ improperly withheld numerous records from him in violation of FOIA. In response, the DOJ filed nine pre-answer motions, each asking the Court to dismiss or grant summary judgment in its favor on different portions of Mr. Pinson's complaint.

This matter comes before the Court on the DOJ's motion to dismiss or for summary judgment on Mr. Pinson's two FOIA claims against the United States Marshals Service (" USMS" ). See Def.'s Mot. Dismiss Summ. J., Mar. 26, 2014, ECF No. 66. The DOJ argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on Mr. Pinson's first claim because he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before bringing this lawsuit. See Def.'s Mem. Supp. Dismiss Summ. J. 5-7, ECF No. 66-2. On the second claim, the DOJ argues it is entitled to summary judgment because a third party's signature on a requisite form is inauthentic, and that therefore responsive records are exempt from disclosure under exemption 7(C) of the Privacy Act. See id. at 7-9.

For the reasons explained below, the Court grants the DOJ's motion for summary judgment as to Mr. Pinson's first claim, but denies the DOJ's motion for summary judgment as to the second.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Request No. 2012USMS21333

On July 31, 2012, Mr. Pinson submitted FOIA Request No. 2012USMS21333 to the USMS for all information it maintains on Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. See Bordley Decl. ¶ 2, ECF No. 66-3; Pinson Decl. ¶ 2, ECF No. 78. Mr. Pinson did not submit a DOJ Form 361, titled " Certification of Identity," signed by Mr. Al-Amin as part of this request. See Bordley Decl. ¶ 3; Pinson Decl. ¶ 4. After receiving the request, the USMS advised Mr. Pinson that it would close out the request until the USMS received Mr. Al-Amin's signed form. See Bordley Decl. ¶ ¶ 2-3. The USMS further advised Mr. Pinson that he could appeal this determination within 60 days. Id.

According to the USMS's records, Mr. Pinson never appealed its determination. Id. Mr. Pinson does not dispute this in either his response to the DOJ's motion or in his supporting declaration. See Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Dismiss Summ. J. 1-2, ECF No. 78; Pinson Decl.

B. Request No. 2012USMS21692[1]

By letter dated September 2, 2012, Mr. Pinson submitted FOIA Request No. 2012USMS21692 to the USMS for the " production of all information maintained . . . on Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin." See Bordley Decl. ¶ 5; Bordley Decl. Ex. B; Pinson Decl. ¶ 4. The USMS received the request on September 12, 2012. See Bordley Decl. ¶ 5. This second request included a DOJ Form 361 purportedly signed by Mr. Al-Amin (" Certification" ). See Bordley Decl. ¶ 6; Pinson Decl. ¶ 4. The USMS examined the Certification and became concerned that Mr. Al-Amin's signature was inauthentic and that any responsive production would violate the Privacy Act. See Bordley Decl. ¶ ¶ 6-7; Bordley Decl. Ex. D.

To ensure that Mr. Pinson's request complied with the Privacy Act, on September 25, 2012,

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the USMS emailed Special Investigative Agent Diana Krist asking her to investigate and advise on whether Mr. Al-Amin's signature on the Certification was genuine. See Bordley Decl. ¶ 7; Bordley Decl. Ex. D. Agent Krist responded to the USMS by email on September 26, 2012, stating that " based on our files, the signature of inmate Al-Amin is not authentic." See Bordley Decl. ¶ 7; Bordley Decl. Ex. D. Agent Krist did not explain how she reached this conclusion. See Bordley Decl. Ex. D. By letter dated October 18, 2012, the USMS informed Mr. Pinson that it was denying his request based on Agent Krist's determination, and it advised Mr. Pinson of his right to appeal. See Bordley Decl. ¶ 9; Bordley Decl. Ex. E; Pinson Decl. ¶ 5.

Mr. Pinson appealed the USMS's decision by letter dated October, 22, 2012. See Bordley Decl. ¶ 10; Pinson Decl. ¶ 5. Shortly thereafter,[2] on November 15, 2012, Mr. Pinson commenced this lawsuit claiming that the USMS improperly refused to produce information responsive to both of his requests. See Compl. 5, ECF. No. 1.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

A. Analyzing the DOJ's Motion Under Rule 12(b)(6) or Rule 56

The DOJ moves for dismissal of Mr. Pinson's causes of action under Rule 12(b)(6) or, alternatively, for summary judgment under Rule 56. In general, exhaustion arguments in FOIA cases are analyzed under Rule 12(b)(6). See, e.g., Hidalgo v. FBI, 344 F.3d 1256, 1260, 358 U.S.App.D.C. 104 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (vacating the district court's summary judgment order and remanding the case with instructions to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) on exhaustion grounds); Jean-Pierre v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 880 F.Supp.2d 95, 100 n.4 (D.D.C. 2012) (" Although FOIA cases 'typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment,' where an agency argues that the requester has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, courts analyze the matter under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim." (citations omitted)). If, however, the defendant's motion references matters outside the pleadings, a court must treat the motion as one for summary judgment, not as one for dismissal based on failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d); Colbert v. Potter, 471 F.3d 158, 164, 374 U.S.App.D.C. 35 (D.C. Cir. 2006); Yates v. District of Columbia, 324 F.3d 724, 725, 355 U.S.App.D.C. 344 (D.C. Cir. 2003); see also Rosenberg v. U.S. Dep't of Immigration & Customs Enforcement, 956 F.Supp.2d 32, 36-43 (D.D.C. 2013) (granting summary judgment for the government " on the grounds [that] the Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before seeking judicial review" ).

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In this case, both the DOJ and Mr. Pinson refer to materials that are not part of the pleadings. Specifically, the DOJ's motion relies on a declaration by William Bordley, who avers that Mr. Pinson never appealed the USMS's determination regarding the first request and explains how the USMS determined that Mr. Al-Amin's signature on the Certification was inauthentic. See Bordley Decl. ¶ ¶ 3-9. The DOJ's motion also references several exhibits to the Bordley Declaration, including copies of correspondence between the USMS and Mr. Pinson and USMS internal correspondence. See Bordley Decl. Ex. A-F. For his part, Mr. Pinson offers a declaration describing when and how Mr. Al-Amin completed the Certification. See Pinson Decl. ¶ ¶ 4-5. Under these circumstances, the Court will evaluate the DOJ's entire motion under the summary judgment standard.[3]

B. Summary Judgment Standard

" FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment." Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009) (citing Bigwood v. U.S. Agency for Int'l Dev., 484 F.Supp.2d 68, 73 (D.D.C. 2007)). A court may grant summary judgment when " 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). A " material" fact is one capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the litigation. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A dispute is " genuine" if there is enough evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-movant. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007).

The principal purpose of summary judgment is to streamline litigation by disposing of factually unsupported claims or defenses. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The movant bears the initial burden of identifying portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. In response, the non-movant must point to specific facts in the record that reveal a genuine issue that is suitable for trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

In considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must avoid " making credibility determinations," Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 363, 374 U.S.App.D.C. 351 (D.C. Cir. 2007), analyze all underlying facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the non-movant, and shall accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true, see Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Nevertheless, conclusory assertions offered without any evidentiary support do not establish a genuine issue for trial. See Greene v. Dalton,

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164 F.3d 671, 675, 334 U.S.App.D.C. 92 (D.C. Cir. 1999). " If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal citation omitted). " In addition, the non-moving party cannot rely upon inadmissible evidence to survive summary judgment; rather, the non-moving party must rely on evidence that would arguably be admissible at trial." Manuel v. Potter, 685 F.Supp.2d 46, 58 (D.D.C. 2010) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

When an agency withholds records responsive to a FOIA request, the agency " bears the burden of proving the applicability of claimed exemptions." ACLU v. U.S. Dep't of Def., 628 F.3d 612, 619, 393 U.S.App.D.C. 384 (D.C. Cir. 2011). " With respect to the applicability of exemptions . . ., summary judgment may be based solely on information provided in the agency's supporting declarations." Nat'l Sec. Counselors v. CIA, 960 F.Supp.2d 101, 133 (D.D.C. 2013) (citations omitted). " If an agency's [declaration] describes the justifications for withholding the information with specific detail, demonstrates that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption," and " is not contradicted by contrary evidence in the record," then summary judgment may be warranted solely on the basis of the agency's declaration. ACLU, 628 F.3d at 619.

IV. ANALYSIS

A. Request No. 2012USMS21333

The DOJ asserts that it is entitled to summary judgment as to Request No. 2012USMS21333, arguing that there is no genuine dispute regarding the material fact that Mr. Pinson failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. See Def.'s Mem. Supp. Dismiss Summ. J. 5-7. Mr. Pinson has failed to respond to this argument.

The DOJ filed its motion for summary judgment as to Mr. Pinson's claims against the USMS on March 26, 2014. The DOJ's motion included language warning Mr. Pinson that his failure to contradict the assertions in the DOJ's declaration and attachments could cause the Court to accept those assertions as true. See Def.'s Mot. Dismiss Summ. J. 1. On February 26, 2014, this Court issued a Fox/Neal Order, which also warned Mr. Pinson that his failure to respond to the DOJ's motion could result in the motion being treated as conceded and his claims being dismissed. See Fox/Neal Order, ECF No. 52.

Despite these warnings, Mr. Pinson did not respond to the argument that he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies with respect to Request No. 2012USMS21333. In his opposition, Mr. Pinson identifies no material facts in dispute related to Request No. 2012USMS21333, and his arguments make no mention of Request No. 2012USMS21333. See Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Dismiss Summ. J. Looking beyond Mr. Pinson's opposition to his supporting declaration, Mr. Pinson avers nothing suggesting that he disputes the DOJ's exhaustion argument. See Pinson Decl. Additionally, Mr. Pinson's response concludes by conceding that the DOJ's motion " must be [g]ranted in part, and denied as argued herein." Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Dismiss Summ. J. 2.

As a consequence, this Court finds that Mr. Pinson has effectively conceded that he failed to appeal the USMS's decision and thus failed to exhaust his administrative remedies regarding Request No. 2012USMS21333. See Wilkins v. Jackson, 750 F.Supp.2d 160, 162 (D.D.C. 2010) (" It is well established that if a plaintiff fails to respond to an argument raised in a motion for summary judgment, it is proper to treat that argument as conceded." ); Sykes

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v. Dudas, 573 F.Supp.2d 191, 202 (D.D.C. 2008) (" [W]hen a party responds to some but not all arguments raised on a Motion for Summary Judgment, a court may fairly view the unacknowledged arguments as conceded." ).

Accordingly, this Court grants the DOJ's motion for summary judgment as to FOIA Request No. 2012USMS21333 because Mr. Pinson " failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before seeking judicial review." Rosenberg, 956 F.Supp.2d at 36-43.

B. Request No. 2012USMS21692

The DOJ next asserts it is entitled to summary judgment on Mr. Pinson's claim regarding Request No. 2012USMS21692 because responsive records are exempt under Section 7(C) of the Privacy Act. See Def.'s Mem. Supp. Dismiss Summ. J. 7-9. Section 7(C) exempts information compiled for law enforcement purposes from FOIA disclosure when the agency reasonably expects that disclosure would " constitute an unwarranted invasion of [a person's] privacy." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(C) (2009). Specifically, the DOJ argues that Mr. Al-Amin's signature on the Certification is inauthentic, and therefore that Section 7(C)'s exemption applies. See Def.'s Mem. Supp. Dismiss Summ. J. 7-9. The DOJ supports its contention that Mr. Al-Amin's signature on the Certification is false with the Bordley Declaration and its exhibits. Id.

The DOJ made a similar argument when it sought summary judgment on Mr. Pinson's request to the DOJ's National Security Division (" NSD" ) for records related to Mr. Al-Amin. See Def.'s Mot. Dismiss Summ. J. 8-11, ECF No. 49-1. There, as here, the NSD was concerned that Mr. Al-Amin's signature on the DOJ Form 361 that Mr. Pinson submitted with his request was not genuine. Id. This Court's Order denying summary judgment directed the DOJ to contact Mr. Al-Amin to determine whether his signature was authentic. See Order, Sep. 30, 2014, ECF No. 116. This Court also ordered that the DOJ submit briefing regarding the outcome of its investigation. Id.

The DOJ submitted briefing detailing its investigation into the authenticity of Mr. Al-Amin's signature on October 27, 2014. See Supplemental Br. Order Mot. Dismiss Summ. J., ECF No. 129. The investigation revealed that Mr. Al-Amin's signature on the Certification of Identity Mr. Pinson supplied with his FOIA request to the NSD was genuine, and the Mr. Al-Amin authorized Mr. Pinson to receive his records. Id. 2-3. The DOJ provided a supporting declaration by Joseph Dunstone, Mr. Al-Amin's prison case manager, who appended an affidavit signed by Mr. Al-Amin. See Dunstone Decl., ECF No. 129-1; Dunstone Decl. Ex. A. Significantly, Mr. Al-Amin's affidavit stated not only that he signed the Certification with respect to the NSD request, but also that he signed the Certification Mr. Pinson submitted with the request to the USMS. See Dunstone Decl. Ex. A. In his declaration, Mr. Dunstone stated he showed this affidavit to Mr. Al-Amin, and Mr. Al-Amin confirmed that he had completed and signed it. See Dunstone Decl. ¶ 4. Mr. Dunstone also stated that he asked Mr. Al-Amin whether he would like Mr. Pinson to receive copies of records that pertain to him, and Mr. Al-Amin verified that he authorized Mr. Pinson to receive his records. Id. ¶ 5.

Additionally, Mr. Dunstone's Declaration appended two questionnaires that Mr. Dunstone prepared and that Mr. Al-Amin completed and signed during their meeting. See Dunstone Decl. Ex. A. The first questionnaire asked whether Mr. Al-Amin " completed and signed [the] affidavit." Id. The second questionnaire asked whether

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Mr. Al-Amin provided " [Mr.] Pinson with [certifications of identity] for the 10 FOIA requests listed in the affidavit," including the Certification Mr. Pinson submitted to the USMS. Id. Mr. Al-Amin handwrote " Yes" in response to both inquiries. Id.

Generally, " [i]f an agency's [declaration] describes the justifications for withholding the information with specific detail, demonstrates that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and is not contradicted by contrary evidence in the record . . . then summary judgment is warranted on the basis of the affidavit alone." [4] ACLU, 628 F.3d at 619. Here, however, the DOJ's own submissions offer two contradictory versions of the facts. Specifically, the Bordley Declaration asserts that Mr. Al-Amin's signature on the Certification is inauthentic, while the Dunstone Declaration seems to establish that Mr. Al-Amin's signature is authentic. Compare Bordley Decl. ¶ ¶ 6-9, with Dunstone Decl. ¶ ¶ 3-6. Accordingly, because the DOJ has submitted a declaration contradicting the evidence it relies on in its motion, summary judgment is not appropriate. The Court therefore denies the DOJ's motion for summary judgment as to FOIA Request No. 2012USMS21692.

V. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Court grants summary judgment for the DOJ as to Request No. 2012USMS21333 on the basis that Mr. Pinson failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before bringing suit. The Court denies the DOJ's motion for summary judgment as to Request No. 2012USMS21692 because the DOJ's assertion that Mr. Al-Amin's signature is inauthentic is contradicted by evidence in the record. The USMS is ordered to process the Plaintiff's FOIA Request No. 2012USMS21692 consistent with the new information obtained directly from Mr. Al-Amin. An order consistent with this Memorandum Opinion is separately and contemporaneously issued.

ORDER

Granting in Part and Denying in Part Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment

For the reasons stated in the Court's Memorandum Opinion contemporaneously issued, the U.S. Department of Justice's (" DOJ" ) motion to dismiss or for summary judgment (ECF No. 66) is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART. It is hereby ORDERED that:

1. As to Freedom of Information Act (" FOIA" ) Request No. 2012USMS21333, JUDGMENT IS ENTERED in favor of the DOJ.
2. As to FOIA Request No. 2012USMS21692, the DOJ's motion for summary judgment is DENIED.

It is FURTHER ORDERED that the USMS shall process the Plaintiff's FOIA Request No. 2012USMS21692 consistent with the new information obtained directly from Mr. Al-Amin, as described in the Court's Memorandum Opinion.

SO ORDERED.


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