United States District Court, D. Columbia
AQUALLIANCE, Plaintiff: Matt G. Kenna, PUBLIC INTREST
ENVIRONMENTAL LAW, Durango, CO.
UNITED STATES BUREAU OF RECLAMATION, Defendant: Carl Ezekiel
Ross, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE FOR THE
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Washington, DC.
BROWN JACKSON, United States District Judge.
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
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
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
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
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
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.)
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
information) and Exemption 9 (as geological and geophysical
information concerning wells). ( See id. at
11-12; 17-18.) 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.)
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.
parties' cross-motions have now been fully briefed and
are ripe for this Court's review.
APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS
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 ...