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Manna v. U.S. Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 13, 2015

LOUIS MANNA, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RANDOLPH D. MOSS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Louis Manna, proceeding pro se, filed this action against the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI"), seeking injunctive relief under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552. Plaintiff's complaint alleges that the FBI failed to respond to his FOIA request of May 1, 2012, in which he requested a copy of "the August 5, 1987 surveillance video" depicting activity "outside Casella's Restaurant." Compl., Dkt. 1, at 5; see Pl.'s Mem. Opp. Dismissal, or Alternative, Summ. J., Dkt. 18, Ex. A ("May 2012 Request"). On May 7, 2013, after the commencement of this action, the FBI provided Plaintiff with an unredacted copy of the requested surveillance videotape. Defendants now move to dismiss the case as moot, or in the alternative, for summary judgment. See Defs.' Mot. Dismiss, Alternatively, Summ. J., Dkt. 14. Plaintiff counters that the case is not moot because "the video was part and parcel of more expansive FOIA request [sic] that are still pending and unresolved." Pl.'s Mem. Opp. at 2.

For the reasons explained below, Defendants' motion is GRANTED.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is serving an 80-year prison sentence for racketeering convictions entered in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. See Manna v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 51 F.3d 1158, 1161 (3d Cir. 1995). It is undisputed that Plaintiff has submitted "numerous FOIA requests" over the years and that he has periodically received materials in response to those requests. See Compl. at 3; Declaration of David M. Hardy, Dkt. 14-2, ¶ 5; Pl.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts, Dkt. 18, at ¶ 4.

On May 1, 2012, Plaintiff submitted a request entitled "Concerning: Expedited Re-Release of August 5, 1987, Casella Restaurant Video, Pursuant to the FOIA/PA ACT." May 2012 Request, at 1. The request sought "a copy of the August 5, 1987 vid[e]o." Id. at 3. Plaintiff acknowledged that the FBI had previously provided him with the requested videotape, but explained that he needed a second copy because the previous copy was submitted as evidence in support of a post-conviction motion and was never returned to him. Id.; see Hardy Decl. ¶ 5 & Ex. A.

In August 2012, the FBI informed Plaintiff that a search of its Central Records System had located no responsive records. See Hardy Decl., Ex. C. Plaintiff appealed to the Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy, reiterating his desire "to obtain a copy of a previously released video surveillance tape relevant to my on going litigation." Compl., Ex. I at 1. The Office of Information Policy affirmed the FBI's no-records response in January 2013. See Hardy Decl., Exs. D & E. After this lawsuit was filed in March 2013, the FBI conducted another search, located the videotape, and released it to plaintiff in its entirety on May 7, 2013. See Hardy Decl., Ex. F.

LEGAL STANDARD

Under the FOIA, a court has jurisdiction "to enjoin [a federal] agency from withholding agency records and to order the production of any agency records improperly withheld from the complainant." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); see Kissinger v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 445 U.S. 136, 139 (1980). "[O]nce all requested records are surrendered, federal courts have no further statutory function to perform." Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 125 (D.C. Cir. 1982); see, e.g., Boyd v. Criminal Div. of U.S. Dep't. of Justice, 475 F.3d 381, 388 (D.C. Cir. 2007) ("[B]ecause the report was located in the work file and subsequently disclosed, the issue is moot for purposes of this FOIA action.").

"FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment, " ViroPharma Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 839 F.Supp.2d 184, 189 (D.D.C. 2012), supported by nonconclusory agency affidavits or declarations, see SafeCard Servs., Inc., v. S.E.C., 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991). An agency "is entitled to summary judgment if no material facts are in dispute and if it demonstrates that each document that falls within the class requested either has been produced... or is wholly exempt from the [FOIA's] inspection requirements.'" Students Against Genocide v. U.S. Dep't of State, 257 F.3d 828, 833 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (quoting Goland v. CIA, 607 F.2d 339, 352 (D.C. Cir. 1978)). "To successfully challenge an agency's showing that it complied with the FOIA, the plaintiff must come forward with specific facts' demonstrating that there is a genuine issue with respect to whether the agency has improperly withheld extant agency records." Span v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 696 F.Supp.2d 113, 119 (D.D.C. 2010) (quoting U.S. Dep't of Justice v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 142 (1989)).

ANALYSIS

Plaintiff does not dispute that he received the surveillance videotape he requested in his May 2012 FOIA request. See Pl.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts, at ¶ 11. Because Plaintiff has obtained the relief sought in that request, this controversy is moot. Crooker v. U.S. State Dep't, 628 F.2d 9, 10 (D.C. Cir. 1980) ("Once the records are produced the substance of the controversy disappears and becomes moot since the disclosure which the suit seeks has already been made."); Heily v. U.S. Dep't of Defense, 896 F.Supp.2d 25, 37 (D.D.C. 2012) (dismissing FOIA claims as moot where the plaintiff received the requested materials while litigation was pending), aff'd, No. 13-5055, 2013 U.S.App. LEXIS 23175 (D.C. Cir. Oct. 16, 2013) (per curiam).

Plaintiff argues that the case is not moot because Defendants have not provided him with additional, unspecified materials relevant to his criminal conviction. His complaint refers to the "surveillance video and all relevant material, " Compl. at 5 (emphasis added), and he contends that "the video was part and parcel of more expansive FOIA request [sic] that are still pending and unresolved, " Pl.'s Opp. Mem. at 1-2. It is unclear if Plaintiff means that Defendants have failed to provide all the materials requested in his May 2012 request, or that Defendants have failed to respond to his other FOIA requests.

To the extent that Plaintiff contends that his May 2012 request sought materials in addition to the videotape, that is not a fair construction of the request. Although an agency "has a duty to construe a FOIA request liberally, " Nation Magazine v. U.S. Customs Serv., 71 F.3d 885, 890 (D.C. Cir. 1995), "[a] FOIA request must reasonably describe' the records requested, " Landmark Legal Found. v. EPA, 272 F.Supp.2d 59, 64 (D.D.C. 2003) (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)). "A request reasonably describes records if the agency is able to determine precisely what records are being requested.'" Kowalczyk v. Dep't of Justice, 73 F.3d 386, 388 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (quoting Yeager v. DEA, 678 F.2d 315, 326 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). Agencies are not obligated to search "beyond the four corners of the request, ' nor are ...


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