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Donoghue v. Office of Information Policy

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 27, 2016

JAMES PATRICK DONOGHUE, Plaintiff,
v.
OFFICE OF INFORMATION POLICY, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

REGGIE B. WALTON United States District Judge

This matter is before the Court on the Defendants’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, ECF No. 9, and also the Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment as to “New Jersey Document, ” ECF No. 22.[1] For the reasons discussed below, the motions will be granted.

I. BACKGROUND

The Court construes the plaintiff’s initial pro se filing, titled “Motion Under Vaughn [v.] Rosen to Require Detailed Indexing, Justification, and Itemization, ” ECF No. 1, as a civil complaint seeking relief under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), see 5 U.S.C. § 552 (2012), with respect to his January 3, 2012 request for information (FOIPA Request No.1180925-000) from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), a component of the United States Department of Justice.[2] See Complaint (“Compl.”) at 2.

According to the plaintiff, on or about August 19, 2008, he “was taken to the Baldwin County Courthouse in Bay Minette[, ] Alabama for a docket hearing.” Id. ¶ 1. His defense counsel allegedly had been instructed to arrive at the courthouse at 6:00 a.m., and upon his attorney’s arrival he “was taken into an office [where] two representatives of federal agencies placed a folder in front of him and told him . . . to read it, ‘because they thought he should know who [his] client really is and what [h]is client really is.’” Id. ¶ 2. Information in the folder purportedly pertained to investigations of the plaintiff’s activities, some of which “were over 34 years old and dated back to when the [p]laintiff was only 17 years old.” Id. ¶ 3. The federal agents allegedly showed the file to the prosecutors and to the judge presiding over the plaintiff’s criminal case, and secured their agreement to “use this information to insure that the [p]laintiff [would] receive[] the sentence that the two representatives had said he was to receive, ” that is, “two consecutive life sentences without parole.” Id. The federal agents allegedly threatened defense counsel in order to ensure his cooperation and to deter the plaintiff’s resistance. See id. With the hope that counsel could persuade the judge to impose a 15-20 year sentence, the plaintiff contends that he “submitted a Blind Plea” and returned to court for sentencing in September 2008. Id. ¶ 6. The court allegedly “sentenced [the plaintiff] to . . . two consecutive life sentences, . . . two concurrent life sentences and . . . five concurrent 20 year sentences all without parole, ” notwithstanding the prosecutor’s request that the court “sentence [him] only to . . . two consecutive life sentences[.]” Id. ¶ 7. According to the plaintiff, “[t]he sentences . . . imposed . . . were directly due to the actions of these . . . two agents acting on instructions on behalf of these Federal Law enforcement and Investigative Agencies.” Id. ¶ 8.

The plaintiff, who believes that the “composite file” presented to defense counsel, the prosecutors and the presiding judge contained “information . . . used to coerce [him] into pleading guilty” to the charges against him, Memorandum in Support of Defendants’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, ECF No. 9 (“Defs.’ Mem. I”), Declaration of David M. Hardy, ECF No. 9-1 (“Hardy Decl.”), Exhibit (“Ex.”) A (Letter to David M. Hardy from James Donoghue dated January 3, 2012) at 1, seeks the following information from the FBI:

[C]opies of any and all sign out log sheets/records that show who signed out these files, the dates they were signed out, their destination, to whom these files were shown . . . upon their arrival in Baldwin County[, ] Alabama, [and] when these same files were returned to their office of origin.
The names of the individuals who requested the information in these files, the name and designation of authority of the individuals who authorized this action, and the reason why such action was undertaken. Any and all documents that would show or purport to show the information requested that would be disclosed on what may be referred to as log sheets, any and all telephone logs in reference to this particular episode cited. Any and all information stored in any electronic format reference to this particular episode including but not limited to E-mails and text and computer stored telephone records in regards to this episode cited.

Id. at 2. The FBI acknowledged receipt of the request, which was assigned FOIPA Request No. 1180925-000, and instructed the plaintiff to supply additional information in order that a search of the FBI’s Central Records System could be conducted. See generally id., Ex. C (Letter to plaintiff from David M. Hardy dated January 26, 2012). The plaintiff represents that he complied with the request. See id. ¶ 7.

A search of the FBI’s Central Records System “located no main files concerning [the] plaintiff, ” id., Hardy Decl. ¶ 8, and the plaintiff was notified of this result in writing, id., Ex. D (Letter to the plaintiff from David M. Hardy dated February 23, 2012).[3] The plaintiff pursued an administrative appeal of the FBI’s initial determination to the United States Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (“OIP”). See id., Ex. E (Letter to Director, OIP, from plaintiff dated March 16, 2012). He maintained in his appeal that “active and/or inactive file(s) and documents(s) regarding [himself were] in the possession of the FBI and or Federal Law Enforcement Agenc[ies].” Id. at 1. He then requested “that an additional expanded search be conducted beyond the category of main file records.” Id.

The OIP upheld the FBI’s determination. Id., Hardy Decl. ¶ 11; see id., Ex. G (Letter to the plaintiff from Anne D. Work, Senior Counsel, Administrative Appeals Staff, Office of Information Policy, to the plaintiff dated August 23, 2012). With respect to the plaintiff’s request for an additional search, the plaintiff was instructed to “provide information sufficient to enable the FBI to determine with certainty that any cross-references it locates are identifiable” to the plaintiff, the subject of the request, and to submit it directly to the FBI. Id., Ex. G at 1-2.

The FBI subsequently determined that “it had accessioned a potentially responsive record to the National Archives and Records Administration, ” and advised the plaintiff to send a FOIA request directly to the Archives. Id., Hardy Decl. ¶ 13. In addition, the FBI notified the plaintiff “that another potentially responsive record was stored at the closed file facility in New Jersey.” Id. However, because the facility “sustained significant flood damages as a result of Hurricane Sandy, ” id., there would be a delay in retrieving this record, see id., Ex. H (Letter to the plaintiff from David M. Hardy dated May 1, 2013). When FBI personnel eventually “conducted a review of this [record, they] determined that it is not identifiable to the plaintiff and therefore [the record is] not responsive to [the] plaintiff’s [FOIA] request.” Memorandum in Support of Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment as to “New Jersey Document, ” (“Defs.’ Mem. II”), ECF No. 22, Status Declaration of David M. Hardy, ECF No. 22-1 (“Hardy Status Decl.”) ¶ 6.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment in a FOIA Case


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