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Thelen v. United States Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 12, 2016

PATRICK THELEN, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

BERYL A. HOWELL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

This matter is before the Court on the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 10].[1] For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the motion.

I. BACKGROUND

The plaintiff brought this action under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), see 5 U.S.C. § 552, against the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to challenge the response of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (“EOUSA”) to his request for information. See Compl. ¶¶ 1, 3-5. Generally, the plaintiff sought “any and all documents, records, investigative reports, memos, or any of the like documents in [agency] files” about himself and his criminal case in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Mem. of P. & A. in Support of Def.’s Mot. for Summ. J. [ECF No. 10-1] (“Def.’s Mem.”), Decl. of David Luczynski [ECF No. 10-2] (“Luczynski Decl.”), Ex. A (FOIPA Request dated January 10, 2014) at 1.

The EOUSA acknowledged receipt of the plaintiff’s request, assigned Request No. FOIA-2014-02699, on June 18, 2014. Luczynski Decl. ¶ 13; see id., Ex. J (Letter to plaintiff from Susan B. Gerson, Assistant Director, Freedom of Information & Privacy Staff, EOUSA, dated June 18, 2014). After conducting a search of records maintained by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan (“USAO/MIE”) and LIONS, the computer tracking system for United States Attorney’s Offices, see id. ¶¶ 19-20, the EOUSA released 156 pages of records in full and 11 pages of records in part, and withheld 155 pages of records in full, id. ¶ 18. In addition, the EOUSA notified the plaintiff that it referred records which had originated with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“BATFE”), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) to those components. Id.

In this action, the plaintiff demands the release of all the information he requested. See generally Compl. ¶¶ 1, 19-20.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment in a FOIA case may be based solely on information provided in an agency’s supporting affidavits or declarations if they are “relatively detailed and non-conclusory, ” Safecard Servs., Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (quoting Ground Saucer Watch, Inc. v. CIA, 692 F.2d 770, 771 (D.C. Cir. 1981)), and when they “[d]escribe the documents and the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstrate that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record [or] by evidence of agency bad faith, ” Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). “To successfully challenge an agency’s showing that it complied with the FOIA, the plaintiff must come forward with ‘specific facts’ demonstrating that there is a genuine issue with respect to whether the agency has improperly withheld extant agency records.” Span v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, 696 F.Supp.2d 113, 119 (D.D.C. 2010) (quoting U.S. Dep’t of Justice v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 142 (1989)).

B. The EOUSA’s Search for Responsive Records

“The adequacy of an agency’s search is measured by a standard of reasonableness and is dependent upon the circumstances of the case.” Weisberg v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice 705 F.2d 1344, 1351 (D.C. Cir. 1983) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). An agency “fulfills its obligations under FOIA if it can demonstrate beyond material doubt that its search was reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.” Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Dep’t of State, 641 F.3d 504, 514 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). A search need not be exhaustive. See Miller v. U.S. Dep’t of State, 779 F.2d 1378, 1383 (8th Cir. 1995). As long as the agency conducts a reasonable search, it fulfills its obligations under the FOIA even if the search yields no responsive records. See Iturralde v. Comptroller of the Currency, 315 F.3d 311, 315 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (stating that “the failure of an agency to turn up one specific document in its search does not alone render a search inadequate”).

To meet its burden, the agency may submit affidavits or declarations that explain in reasonable detail the scope and method of its search. Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 126 (D.C. Cir. 1982). In the absence of contrary evidence, such affidavits or declarations are sufficient to demonstrate an agency’s compliance with the FOIA. Id. at 127. If, on the other hand, the record “leaves substantial doubt as to the sufficiency of the search, [then] summary judgment for the agency is not proper.” Truitt v. Dep’t of State, 897 F.2d 540, 542 (D.C. Cir. 1990); see also Valencia-Lucena v. U.S. Coast Guard, 180 F.3d 321, 326 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

The EOUSA’s declarant explains that each United States Attorney’s Office maintains its own criminal case files. Luczynski Decl. ¶ 19. The plaintiff’s criminal prosecution took place in the Eastern District of Michigan and, consequently, the EOUSA forwarded the plaintiff’s FOIA request to the FOIA contact for that district. Id. Accordingly, the FOIA contact at the USAO/MIE “searched for records from the case files in the criminal prosecution case . . . identified [by the] plaintiff . . . in his request.” Id.

United States Attorney’s Offices use LIONS “to track cases and to retrieve files pertaining to cases and investigations.” Id. Through LIONS, a user “acces[es] databases . . . to retrieve . . . information based on a defendant’s name, the USAO number (United States[] Attorney’s Office internal administrative number), and the district court case number for any court cases.” Id. Here, the FOIA contact searched LIONS to locate records on “Patrick Thelen” in the USAO/MIE Criminal Case File System (Justice/USA-007). Id. ¶¶ 19-20. According to the EOUSA’s declarant, there are no other records systems or locations within the Eastern District of Michigan or the EOUSA where other files pertaining to the plaintiff were maintained.” Id. ¶¶ 19, 21.

According to the plaintiff, “[t]he EOUSA has, or should have, in its possession over 37 pages of DEA spectrograph analysis that it has not included in its index (R. 20-1, pp. 3-4) or turned over to [him].” Combined Mot. to File Surreply and Surreply to Gov’t’s Reply [ECF No. 21] at 2. He explains that there were lab reports analyzing the drugs seized at his residence in 1997, “yet there is no reference about them in EOUSA’s summary judgment motion relating to search, ” because it has not disclosed “documents relating to the testing of drugs seized from [his] home, ” documents that he “knows for a fact . . . exist.” Id.

Neither the EOUSA’s failure to produce particular documents nor the plaintiff’s “mere speculation that as yet uncovered documents might exist, undermines the adequacy of the EOUSA’s search. See Wilbur v. CIA, 355 F.3d 675, 678 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (per curiam); see Baker & Hostetler LLP v. U.S. Dep’t of Commerce, 473 F.3d 312, 318 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (finding the requester’s “assertion that an adequate search would have yielded more documents is mere speculation” and affirming district court’s conclusion that agency’s search procedure was “reasonably calculated to generate responsive documents”); Concepción v. FBI, 606 F.Supp.2d 14, 30 (D.D.C. 2009) (finding that the plaintiff’s “speculation as to the existence of additional records . . . does not render the search[] inadequate”). “Adequacy and reasonableness turn not on the yield of the search, but on the ‘appropriateness of the methods used to carry out the search.’” Waldner v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, 981 F.Supp.2d 14, 17 (D.D.C. 2013) (citing Iturralde, 315 F.3d at 315), aff’d, No. 13-5350, 2014 WL 3014045 (D.C. Cir. June 4, 2014) (per curiam). The plaintiff’s challenge pertains only to the results of the EOUSA’s search, and such an assertion alone does not overcome the defendant’s showing on summary judgment.

The Court concludes that the EOUSA conducted a reasonable search for records responsive to the ...


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