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Lee v. Federal Bureau of Investigations

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 28, 2016



TANYA S. CHUTKAN, United States District Judge

Plaintiff Sean William Lee brings this action under the Privacy Act, see 5 U.S.C. § 552a, against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), a component of the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”). See Second Am. Compl. ¶¶ 2-3. This matter is before the court on Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons stated below, the motion will be granted.


On August 18, 2004, Plaintiff entered “an ‘Alford’ plea to a State of Tennessee Criminal Information filed [on] August 4, 2004 by the District Attorney for the 30th Judicial District [court in] Shelby [County, Tennessee].” Id. ¶ 8.[1] He also “waiv[ed] his right to be indicted by a State of Tennessee grand jury.” Id. ¶ 9. The Tennessee court conducted a “combined plea and sentencing hearing” on August 18, 2004, id. ¶ 10, at which time “Plaintiff was sentenced to a suspended 3-year term of imprisonment and 6-year[ term] of supervised probation, ” id. ¶ 11.

Plaintiff submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI in February 2010, and among the records released to him on May 24, 2010 were “redacted copies of documents located in the file number 305D-ME-57442, maintained under plaintiffs [TC1]name.” Mem. of P. & A. in Support of Def’s Mot. to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summ. J., Decl. of David M. Hardy (“Hardy Decl.”) ¶ 3; see Second Am. Compl. ¶ 14. According to Plaintiff, “on [or about] August 23, 2004, FBI Special Agent Stephen K. Lies created ‘Case ID 305D-ME-57442 Titled SEAN WILLIAM LEE; INNOCENT IMAGES MAJOR CASE 110, ’” Second Am. Compl. ¶ 12 (emphasis in original), when he “investigated and arrested” Plaintiff in an “unrelated [federal] criminal’ case in the Western District of Tennessee.” id. ¶ 19.

According to the FBI’s declarant, file number 305D-ME-57442 contained “an Electronic Communication . . . dated August 23, 2004 drafted by an FBI Special agent” summarizing the “FBI’s involvement in assisting [with the] Collierville[, Tennessee] Police Department’s investigation of plaintiff for possible possession of child pornography.” Hardy Decl. ¶ 3. The file “was compiled in the FBI’s Central Records System (‘CRS’)” in the course of “the FBI’s fulfillment of its law enforcement duties associated with [the] criminal investigation [of Plaintiffs efforts] to solicit sexual relations with a minor . . . result[ing] in charges filed against [P]laintiff by the State of Tennessee.” Id. . ¶ 11. “The purpose of the [Electronic Communication] was to request return of the evidence against [Plaintiff] from the [FBI’s] Memphis Field Office.” Id. . ¶ 3.

On the belief that information in the FBI’s records was “false and inaccurate, ” id. ¶ 15, Plaintiff submitted “an official complaint concerning [file number 305D-ME-57442] pursuant to Title 5[, ] United States Code, Section 552a by the willful, knowing, and intentional creation of a false, inaccurate and incomplete Agency Record by FBI Special Agent Stephen K. Lies . . . on January 8, 2004 and updated August 23, 2004, ” Hardy Decl., Ex. B at 1, “in an attempt to correct the record, ” Second Am. Compl. ¶ 15. He claimed “that the FBI willfully and intentionally created a false, inaccurate agency record in violation of the Privacy Act” because information in the file indicated, among other things, that Plaintiff had been indicted by a Tennessee grand jury. See Hardy Decl., Ex. B at 3. Plaintiff’s complaint was met with “silence and non-compliance.” Second Am. Compl. ¶ 22.

According to Plaintiff, Special Agent Lies “testified before a federal grand jury and presented . . . information contained within” file number 305D-ME-57442, including a statement “that Plaintiff had ‘in-fact’ been indicted by a Tennessee grand jury when no grand jury proceeding [took] place.” Id. ¶ 19. Subsequently, Plaintiff “pleaded guilty to one count of using interstate ‘instant messages’ over an interstate telephone system . . . to knowingly attempt to persuade, induce, entice or coerce a female [under] 18 years of age to engage in a sexual act in violation of 18 U.S.C. §[] 2422(b), ” Hardy Decl. ¶ 10, for which he now is serving a 188-month term of imprisonment, Second Am. Compl. ¶ 20. In Plaintiff’s view, Special Agent Lies’ testimony before the federal grand jury “result[ed] in prejudice and actual harm to [him], specifically that the [information in file number 305D-ME-57442] stated that Plaintiff had ‘in-fact-been indicted by a Tennessee grand jury when no grand jury proceeding [took] place.” Second Am. Compl. ¶ 19. The “actual damage[]” Plaintiff allegedly suffered was the return of “a federal indictment . . . related to testimony concerning the agency record in question, for which Plaintiff was subsequently convicted in federal court and is serving prison time.” Id. ¶ 24. He has demanded compensatory damages and injunctive relief. See id. ¶¶ 28-30.


Generally, “[t]he Privacy Act regulates the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of information about individuals by federal agencies.” Wilson v. Libby, 535 F.3d 697, 707 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). For example, subsection (e)(5) of the Privacy Act requires that an agency “maintain all records which are used by the agency in making any determination about any individual with such accuracy, relevance, timeliness, and completeness as to assure fairness to the individual in the determination.” 5 U.S.C. § 552a(e)(5). An individual may request access to and amendment of an agency’s records or information in a system of records pertaining to him. See Id. § 552a(d). That individual may file a civil action against an agency which “makes a determination . . . not to amend an individual’s record in accordance with his request, ” id. § 552a(g)(1)(A), or if the agency:

fails to maintain any record concerning [him] with such accuracy, relevance, timeliness, and completeness as is necessary to assure fairness in any determination relating to the qualifications, character, rights, or opportunities of, or benefits to [him] that may be made on the basis of such record, and consequently a determination is made which is adverse to [him].

Id. § 552a(g)(1)(C). And if the court determines that the agency’s actions were willful or intentional, it may award actual damages sustained by the individual as a result of the agency’s failure to maintain its records with the requisite level of accuracy, and further may award costs of the action and attorney fees. Id. § 552a(g)(4).

A. Plaintiff’s Privacy Act Claim Is Untimely

A civil action under the Privacy Act must be filed within two years from the date a claim accrues, see id. § 552a(g)(5), unless equitable tolling of the limitations period is warranted. SeeChung v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, 333 F.3d 273, 278 n.1 (D.C. Cir. 2003). “The only exception to the rule arises if an agency ‘materially and willfully misrepresented any information, ’” and in such circumstances, “the action may be brought at any time within two years after discovery by the individual of the misrepresentation.” Samtmann v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, ...

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