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AquAlliance v. United States Bureau of Reclamation

United States District Court, D. Columbia

October 14, 2015


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          For AQUALLIANCE, Plaintiff: Matt G. Kenna, PUBLIC INTREST ENVIRONMENTAL LAW, Durango, CO.


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         KETANJI BROWN JACKSON, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff AquAlliance is a non-profit organization " dedicated to defending northern California waters and to challeng[ing] threats to the hydrologic health of the northern Sacramento River watershed." (Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶ 4.) AquAlliance has requested documents from the Bureau of Reclamation (" Defendant" or " Bureau" ) under the Freedom of Information Act (" FOIA" ), 5 U.S.C. § 552, concerning permits for water transfers in the state of California in 2013 and 2014. ( See Def.'s Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute (" Def.'s SOF" ), ECF No. 14, 3-4, ¶ ¶ 1-2.) In response to Plaintiff's two FOIA requests, the Bureau conducted a search of its records, identified responsive documents, and turned those documents over to the organization; however, it redacted certain information on the basis of four FOIA exemptions. ( See id. ¶ 4.) In the instant lawsuit, AquAlliance now challenges the Bureau's invocation of three of those exemptions. ( See Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. & Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (" Pl.'s Mem." ), ECF No. 15, 4-21, at 5.)[1]

         Before this Court at present are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ( See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 14, 1-2; Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 15, 1.) Defendant maintains that the redacted information--which it has identified in two detailed Vaughn indices ( see Vaughn Index: Vlamis BOR-2014-00035, ECF No. 13-1; Vaughn Index: Vlamis BOR-2014-00187, ECF No. 13-2)--properly falls under FOIA Exemptions 4, 5, 6, and 9. ( See Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (" Def.'s Mem." ), ECF No. 14, 5-19, at 6-19.) Plaintiff does not contest Defendant's invocation of Exemption 5 ( see Pl.'s Mem at 5 n.1), but it claims that Exemptions 4, 6, and 9 do not protect the rest of the withheld information ( see id. at 7-21).

         On September 30, 2015, this Court issued an order that GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART each of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ( See Order, ECF No. 24.) Specifically, the Court granted Defendant's motion with respect to the information Defendant withheld pursuant to Exemptions 5 and 9, and denied the motion in all other respects. ( See id. ) Conversely, Plaintiff's motion was granted as to the information Defendant

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withheld pursuant to Exemption 6 and denied in all other respects. ( See id. ) This Memorandum Opinion explains the reasons for that order. In sum, the Court agrees with Defendant that Exemption 9 permits the withholding of information regarding the locations and depths of water wells ( see infra Part III.A), and it agrees with Plaintiff that the names and addresses of well applicants and owners are not protected by Exemption 6 ( see infra Part III.B).

         I. BACKGROUND

         As part of its ecological advocacy mission, AquAlliance " extensively comment[s]" on the California-area North-to-South water transfer programs that are under the purview of various state and federal agencies, including Defendant. ( See Decl. of Barbara Vlamis (" Vlamis Decl." ), ECF No. 15-1, 1-6, ¶ 3.) In order to comment on the 2014 water transfer program, Plaintiff submitted a FOIA request to the Bureau on November 12, 2013, seeking all documents and communications in the Bureau's possession " regarding the actual water transferred in 2013 . . . including but not limited to letters, contracts, memos, notes, e-mails, spreadsheets, reports, publications, maps, GIS files, photographs, analysis, and any other material regarding the 2013 water transfers." ( Id. ¶ 4; Compl. ¶ 7; Def.'s SOF ¶ 1.) On May 1, 2014, Plaintiff submitted a second FOIA request, seeking " all applications to the Bureau . . . for approval of specific transfers of water in the year 2014 from the Sacramento River watershed to south of the Delta and all documents in the possession, custody, or control of the Bureau . . . that relate to any such applications." (Vlamis Decl. ¶ 5; Compl. ¶ 12; Def.'s SOF ¶ 2.)

         The Bureau conducted searches in response to both requests, hunting for responsive records through " personal e-mail accounts, electronic files on [the Bureau's] public drives, the Bureau of Reclamation Water Operation and Recordkeeping System (BORWORKS), and . . . local paper files." (Decl. of Christopher S. Miller (" Miller Decl." ), ECF No. 14-1, ¶ 3; Def.'s SOF ¶ 3.) However, when the Bureau had not made full determinations and disclosures with regard to both requests by June 16, 2014, AquAlliance filed the instant action in federal court, challenging the dilatory nature of Defendant's disclosures and arguing that the Bureau had run afoul of the statutory deadline. ( See Compl. ¶ ¶ 18-19, 21.) While the lawsuit was pending, the Bureau turned over the responsive records, but with certain information redacted. Specifically, the Bureau redacted various data relating to well completion, well construction, and the physical location of wells, claiming that such information was protected under both Exemption 4 and Exemption 9. ( See Miller Decl. ¶ 4; Vlamis Decl. ¶ 6; Def.'s Mem. at 11-12, 17-18.) The Bureau also redacted the names and addresses of various participants in water transfer programs or real water determinations, as well as those of a private well owner, claiming that the individuals' privacy interests outweighed any public interest in the information's release under Exemption 6. ( See Miller Decl. ¶ 4; Vlamis Decl. ¶ 6; Def.'s Mem. at 16-17.)

         On February 2, 2015, Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because it " properly conducted a good faith search reasonably expected to identify documents responsive to [Plaintiff's] FOIA requests," (Def.'s Mem at 9) and " properly applied [statutory] exemptions to withhold [responsive] information[,]" ( id. at 10). Specifically, the Bureau asserts that it withheld information regarding well location, depth, and construction under both Exemption 4 (as confidential commercial

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information) and Exemption 9 (as geological and geophysical information concerning wells). ( See id. at 11-12; 17-18.)[2] The Bureau also withheld predecisional and deliberative documents under Exemption 5 ( see id. at 12-15) and the names and addresses of certain well owners and permit applicants under Exemption 6 ( see id. at 16-17). The Bureau attached a Vaughn index for each FOIA request, describing each redaction and explaining how the invoked exemption applied to the information it withheld. ( See Vaughn Index: Vlamis BOR-2014-00035; Vaughn Index: Vlamis BOR-2014-00187.)

         AquAlliance filed a cross-motion for summary judgment and response to Defendant's motion on February 27, 2015. ( See Pl.'s Mot.) Plaintiff does not challenge the adequacy of the search or the Bureau's assertion of Exemption 5, but it does contest the invocation of Exemptions 4, 6, and 9. Specifically, AquAlliance argues that the water well construction and depth data are not protected under Exemption 4 because such information must be disclosed to the Bureau in order to obtain a water transfer permit and would not cause competitive harm if released. ( See Pl.'s Mem. at 8-11.) Plaintiff also contends that Exemption 9 does not shield the information regarding well construction, location, and depth, because that exemption applies only to oil (not water) wells, and because the information is not the type of technical or scientific data that Exemption 9 protects. ( See id. at 11-14.) Finally, AquAlliance argues that the names and addresses of well owners and permit applicants do not implicate a personal privacy interest because they constitute commercial information, and that even if a personal privacy interest is at stake, the public interest in disclosure outweighs the privacy concern. ( See id. at 14-21; Pl.'s Reply in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (" Pl.'s Reply" ), ECF No. 23, 14-17.)

         The parties' cross-motions have now been fully briefed and are ripe for this Court's review.


         A. Summary Judgment in FOIA Cases

         " FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment." Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Dep't of the Navy, 25 F.Supp.3d 131, 136 (D.D.C. 2014) (quoting Defs. of Wildlife v. U.S. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009)). Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court must grant summary judgment if the pleadings, disclosure materials on file, and affidavits " show[] that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); seeJudicial Watch v. Navy, 25 F.Supp.3d at 136 (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)). In the FOIA context, a district court reviewing a motion for summary judgment ...

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