United States District Court, D. Columbia
AUSTIN NOLEN, Plaintiff: Jeffrey Louis Light, LEAD ATTORNEY,
LAW OFFICES OF JEFFREY LIGHT, Washington, DC.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant: Alexander Daniel Shoaibi,
LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Civil Division,
Mehta, United States District Judge.
Austin Nolen brings this suit under the Freedom of
Information Act (" FOIA" ) challenging the adequacy
of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's ("
FBI" ) search in response to his extraordinarily
detailed, ten-page FOIA request. In sum, Plaintiff requested
" any and all records . . . relating or referring"
to Martin Droll, a deceased socialist writer and organizer.
In response to Plaintiff's request, the FBI searched both
the index of its Central Records System (" CRS" )
using its Universal Index (" UNI" ) application, as
well as the indices of its Electronic Surveillance ("
ELSUR" ) records system, for files relating to Droll.
Each database was searched using a seven-way phonetic
breakdown of Droll's name. Each search included
Droll's date and place of birth, and date and place of
death. But the FBI found no records.
Plaintiff filed this lawsuit, the FBI again searched the CRS
index, but this time searched for any cross-references to
Droll that might exist in other files. This follow-up search
employed the same terms used in the initial search, as well
as Droll's alias, " Marty Rifles," which was
identified for the first time in Plaintiff's Complaint.
Applying these same terms, the FBI also searched the Sentinel
Index of the CRS. In all, the FBI conducted four searches of
two different databases on two separate occasions. None of
these searches returned any responsive records.
the court are Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and
Plaintiff's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. Defendant
Department of Justice (" DOJ" ) argues that the
FBI's searches, as described above, were adequate because
they were reasonably likely to identify records responsive to
Plaintiff's FOIA request. Plaintiff counters that the
FBI's search was inadequate because the FBI: (1) did not
search the case files of Droll's known associates and
affiliated organizations; (2) did not search the Electronic
Case File (" ECF" ), a separate index that can be
used to conduct text-based searches of the FBI's records;
and (3) failed to contact relevant field offices and
divisions to determine whether those offices possessed
reviewed the record, the court grants Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment and denies Plaintiff's Cross-Motion
for Summary Judgment.
Andrew Droll was a socialist writer and organizer involved in
several " leftist movements and organizations."
Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶ ¶ 7, 9. According to
Plaintiff's Complaint, on April 17, 2014, Droll made a
Freedom of Information Act (" FOIA" ) request to
the FBI, seeking records about himself that the FBI had in
its possession. Id. ¶ 16. Droll made the
request after one of his associates, Shane Madonna, told
Droll that the FBI possessed material indicating that Droll
was a religious extremist. Id. ¶ ¶ 14-16.
Droll allegedly received a response from the FBI on May 13,
2014, though the Complaint does not specify the
response's contents. Id. ¶ 16. That same
day, Droll committed suicide. Id. ¶ 17.
6, 2014, Plaintiff Austin Nolen submitted a FOIA request to
the FBI. See generally Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J.,
ECF No. 9 [hereinafter Def.'s Mot.], Ex. A, ECF No. 9-1.
Plaintiff's request was unusually lengthy and elaborate,
spanning ten, single-spaced pages with more than 33 different
paragraphs of instructions. See generally id. In
those ten pages, Plaintiff sought " any and all records
. . . relating or referring to the deceased person Martin
Andrew Droll." Id. at 14.
also made a number of specific search requests, only a few of
which are pertinent to this litigation. First, he asked that
the FBI conduct a text-based search of the Electronic Case
File (" ECF" ). Id. at 17. The ECF is an
application of the Automated Case Support System ("
ACS" ). Def.'s Mot., Attachment A, Decl. of David M.
Hardy, ¶ 16 [hereinafter Hardy Decl.]. ACS allows the
FBI to search the Central Records System (" CRS" ),
which contains " administrative, applicant,
investigative, personnel, and other files complied for law
enforcement purposes," using several different methods.
Id. ¶ ¶ 12, 16. Plaintiff's request
also asked the FBI to search at least 98 other indices,
including the Electronic Surveillance (" ELSUR" )
indices. Def.'s Mot., Ex. A, at 18-19. ELSUR "
maintain[s] information on subjects whose electronic and/or
voice communications have been intercepted as the result of a
consensual electronic surveillance or a court-ordered (and/or
sought) electronic surveillance conducted by the FBI."
Hardy Decl. ¶ 18. Finally, Plaintiff also requested a
search of " any and all FBI field offices and/or
resident agencies, and any and all FBI and/or Joint task
force offices." Def.'s Mot., Ex. A, at 15.
addition to spelling out these expansive search requests,
Plaintiff provided additional information on Droll, such as
his date and place of birth (April 14, 1989, in Guernsey
County, Ohio) and his date and place of death (May 13, 2014,
in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania). Id. at 14.
The request also stated that Droll's associate, Shane
Madonna, was questioned by at least one FBI agent on the
" existence and nature of his relationship with Mr.
30, 2014, the FBI responded to Plaintiff's FOIA Request.
Def.'s Mot., Ex. B, ECF No. 9-1, at 27. The FBI informed
Plaintiff that, after searching the CRS and the ELSUR
indices, the FBI was " unable to identify [any] main
file records responsive to [Plaintiff's] FOIA
[request]." Id. at 27. David M. Hardy, the
FBI's Section Chief of the Record/Information
Dissemination Section of the Records Management Division in
Winchester, Virginia, provided a declaration describing the
FBI's initial searches. According to Hardy, the FBI
initially searched " the automated indices to the CRS to
identify all potentially responsive files indexed to FOIA
subject Martin Andrew Droll." Hardy Decl. ¶ 22. In
its search, using the Universal Index (" UNI" )
application, the FBI employed a " [seven]-way phonetic
breakdown" of Droll's name including: " Droll,
Martin, Andrew" ; " Droll, Martin, A" ; "
Droll, M, A" ; " Droll, Martin" ; "
Droll, M" ; " Droll, Andrew" ; and "
Droll, A." Def.'s Reply to Pl.'s Cross-Mot.,
Second Declaration of David M. Hardy, ECF No. 13-1, ¶
6(a) [hereinafter Second Hardy Decl.]; Hardy Decl. ¶
¶ 22-23. The search also included Droll's "
date of birth, date of death, and places of birth and death
to facilitate the identification of responsive records."
Id. ¶ 22. Employing the same terms used to
perform the index search of the CRS, the FBI also searched
the ELSUR indices for any main files relating to Droll.
Id. ¶ 23. This search, like the CRS search, did
not reveal any responsive documents. Id.
appealed the FBI's failure to find records to the Office
of Information Policy (" OIP" ) on July 7, 2014,
claiming that the FBI had failed to conduct an adequate
search for responsive material. Def.'s Mot., Ex. C, ECF
No. 9-1, at 31. OIP sent Plaintiff an initial response on
July 11, 2014, informing him that it had received his
request. Def.'s Mot., Ex. D, ECF No. 9-1, at 48. On
September 16, 2014, OIP affirmed the FBI's ...