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Wadelton v. Department of State

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 26, 2015

JOAN WADELTON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF STATE, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

TANYA S. CHUTKAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Joan Wadelton is a retired Foreign Service Officer involved in litigation against the Department of State ("State") concerning her non-promotion. In this Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") action, joined by the progressive blog Truthout, she seeks documents about her which were maintained in various State Department offices. Defendant has filed a motion for partial summary judgment as to records maintained by the Bureau of Human Resources ("HR") and the Office of the Under Secretary for Management ("Management"). For the reasons set forth below, the court DENIES the motion.

I. BACKGROUND

On October 1, 2012 Wadelton submitted a FOIA request for "copies of all [State Department] emails or other documents pertaining to [Wadelton] from 2000-present maintained or created by the Bureau of Human Resources or, in the case of emails, in which a Bureau of Human Resources employee or contractor was a sender or recipient." (Def. Statement of Material Facts ¶ 1).[1] She also requested copies of all "emails or other documents pertaining to [her] from 2004-present maintained or created by the Office of the Under Secretary for Management or, in the case of emails, in which an Office of the Under Secretary for Management employee or contractor was a sender or recipient." ( Id. ¶ 2). HR has several components, three of which were searched for responsive records: the Grievance Staff, the Office of Performance Evaluation, and the Office of Retirement. ( Id. ¶ 9). The Director of Grievance, Melinda Chandler, "was knowledgeable of the request at issue here and of [Grievance] records systems, " and searched the office's electronic systems, including the office's shared drive, her own e-mails, Word documents, and personal hard drive, using the term "Wadelton." ( Id. ¶ 10). She also searched the office's paper files, "which are maintained by name." ( Id. ). Grievance has a file drawer labeled with Wadelton's name. ( Id. ). Two staff members from Performance Evaluation searched that office's shared drive, their own emails, Word documents, and personal hard drives using the search terms "Wadelton" and "Joan." ( Id. ¶ 11). They also searched the office's paper files, which are organized by name. ( Id. ). The Chief Policy Advisor of Retirement searched the office's shared drive, and the Advisor's emails, Word documents, and personal hard drive for the term "Wadelton, " and also did a "page-by-page search of Wadelton's electronic retirement folder." Retirement does not maintain paper records. ( Id. ¶ 12).

Patrick Kennedy, the Under Secretary for Management, searched his emails using the term "Wadelton." ( Id. ¶ 15). Management "does not maintain paper records in their office." ( Id. ). Management also conducted a search of the Retired Records Inventory Management System, which is a searchable database of record lot files stored in the Records Service Center. ( Id. ¶ 17). Of the responsive records located through these searches, State withheld documents under six exemptions, as outlined in the declaration of John Hackett (ECF No. 44-1) and accompanying Vaughn index (ECF No. 44-2). Arguing that its search was adequate and that its withholdings are justified, Defendant seeks partial summary judgment as to the HR and Management documents.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate where the record shows there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Waterhouse v. District of Columbia, 298 F.3d 989, 991 (D.C. Cir. 2002). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). "A fact is material' if a dispute over it might affect the outcome of a suit under governing law; factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary' do not affect the summary judgment determination." Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). "An issue is genuine' if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Id. The party seeking summary judgment "bears the heavy burden of establishing that the merits of his case are so clear that expedited action is justified." Taxpayers Watchdog, Inc., v. Stanley, 819 F.2d 294, 297 (D.C. Cir. 1987).

FOIA cases are "typically and appropriately" decided on motions for summary judgment. Gold Anti-Trust Action Comm., Inc. v. Bd. of Governors of the Fed. Reserve Sys., 762 F.Supp.2d 123, 130 (D.D.C. 2011) (citations omitted). Upon an agency's request for summary judgment in its favor on the grounds that it has fully discharged its FOIA obligations, all underlying facts and inferences are analyzed in the light most favorable to the FOIA requester; only after an agency proves that it has fully discharged its FOIA obligations is summary judgment appropriate. Moore v. Aspin, 916 F.Supp. 32, 35 (D.D.C. 1996) (citing Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344, 1350 (D.C. Cir. 1983)).

In cases concerning the applicability of exemptions and the adequacy of an agency's search efforts, summary judgment may be based solely on information provided in the agency's supporting declarations. See, e.g., ACLU v. U.S. Dept. of Def., 628 F.3d 612, 619 (D.C. Cir. 2011); Students Against Genocide v. Dept. of State, 257 F.3d 828, 838 (D.C. Cir. 2001). "If an agency's affidavit 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 or by evidence of the agency's bad faith, then summary judgment is warranted on the basis of the affidavit alone." ACLU, 628 F.3d at 619 (citations omitted). "Ultimately, an agency's justification for invoking a FOIA exemption is sufficient if it appears logical' or plausible.'" Id. (quoting Larson v. Dep't of State, 565 F.3d 857, 862 (D.C. Cir. 2009)) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, a motion for summary judgment should be granted in favor of the FOIA requester "[w]hen an agency seeks to protect material which, even on the agency's version of the facts, falls outside the proffered exemption." Coldiron v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 310 F.Supp.2d 44, 48 (D.D.C. 2004) (quoting Petroleum Info. Corp. v. Dep't of Interior, 976 F.2d 1429, 1433 (D.C. Cir. 1992)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

In considering the adequacy of an agency's search in response to a FOIA request,

[t]he question is not whether there might exist any other documents possibly responsive to the request, but rather whether the search for those documents was adequate. The adequacy of the search, in turn, is judged by a standard of reasonableness and depends, not surprisingly, upon the facts of each case. In demonstrating the adequacy of the search, the agency may rely upon reasonably detailed, nonconclusory affidavits submitted in good faith.

Steinberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 551 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (internal citations omitted). An agency may prove the reasonableness of its search through a declaration of a responsible agency official, so long as the declaration reasonably details the documents and justifications for nondisclosure, and is not controverted by contrary evidence or evidence of bad faith. Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Although the agency is not required to search every record system, it must make a good faith effort to reasonably search systems that are likely to contain records where the requested information is likely to be found. Oglesby v. Dep't of Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990). The agency declaration can demonstrate reasonableness by "setting forth the search terms and the type of search performed, and averring that all files likely to contain responsive materials (if such records exist) were searched." Sanders v. Obama, 729 F.Supp.2d 148, 155 (D.D.C. 2010), aff'd sub nom., Sanders v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 10-5273, 2011 WL 1769099 (D.C. Cir. Apr. 21, 2011) (citation omitted). Once an agency has provided adequate affidavits, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the agency did not make good faith search. Id. The presumption of good faith "cannot be rebutted by purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents." SafeCard Servs. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (internal quotation marks omitted).

III. ANALYSIS

A. Adequacy of State's search

i. Search of HR

Plaintiffs challenge the decision to limit the search in Grievance by searching only Chandler's personal electronic files. (Pls. Opp'n at 4). Given that Grievance maintained an entire filing cabinet drawer labeled "Wadelton, " Plaintiffs argue it was "patently unreasonable" to search only the Director's email account and personal computer files and not those of other Grievance employees. ( Id. ). Indeed, Plaintiffs list a number of other Grievance staff members (and staff members from other HR components) whom they allege were involved in Wadelton's grievances, and note that Wadelton's original ...


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