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Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Department of State

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 6, 2016

JUDICIAL WATCH, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF STATE, Defendant.

OPINION

ROSEMARY M. COLLYER United States District Judge

In recent years, there has been something of an uproar over State Department officials’ use of private email addresses to conduct official State business. Judicial Watch, Inc., submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, with the goal of ascertaining how broadly across the State Department private email was used. Because the request was not a request for records governed by FOIA but instead was a request for information outside of FOIA, the Court will enter summary judgment in favor of the State Department.

I. FACTS

On March 6, 2015, Judicial Watch submitted a FOIA request to State seeking:

Any and all records that identify the number and names of all current and former officials, officers, or employees of the U.S. Department of State from January 20, 2009 to the present who used email addresses other than their assigned “state.gov” email addresses to conduct official State Department business.

Mot. for Summ. J. (MSJ) [Dkt. 10], Ex. A (Hackett Decl.) ¶ 4, Ex. 1 (FOIA Request 3/6/16).[1]The State Department read Plaintiff’s request word for word to mean that Plaintiff sought “any and all records that identify the number and names of all current and former officials . . . who used email addresses other than their assigned “state.gov” email addresses to conduct official State Department business.” Id. ¶ 10 (adding emphasis to the words of Plaintiff’s FOIA request). Based on this reading, the State Department determined that the only Department records systems or offices likely to contain responsive records were: the Central Foreign Policy Records; the Office of the Executive Secretariat; the Office of the Inspector General; the Bureau of Diplomatic Security; the Bureau of Information Resources and Management; the Office of Information Programs; and the Office of the Legal Advisor. Id. § 6. These record systems and offices were searched, but no responsive records were found. Id. The State Department moves for summary judgment. See MSJ [Dkt. 10]; Reply [Dkt. 12]. Plaintiff opposes. See Opp’n [Dkt. 11].

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

The State Department contends that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Summary judgment is properly granted against a party who “after adequate time for discovery and upon motion . . . fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party’s favor and accept the nonmoving party’s evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. A nonmoving party, however, must establish more than “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence” in support of its position. Id. at 252.

FOIA cases are typically and appropriately decided on motions for summary judgment. Miscavige v. IRS, 2 F.3d 366, 368 (11th Cir. 1993); Rushford v. Civiletti, 485 F.Supp. 477, 481 n.13 (D.D.C. 1980), aff’d sub nom. Rushford v. Smith, 656 F.2d 900 (D.C. Cir. 1981). In a FOIA case, a district court may award summary judgment solely on the basis of information provided by the agency in affidavits when the affidavits describe “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 nor by evidence of agency bad faith.” Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Affidavits submitted by the agency to demonstrate the adequacy of its response are presumed to be in good faith. Ground Saucer Watch, Inc. v. CIA, 692 F.2d 770, 771 (D.C. Cir. 1981).

III. ANALYSIS

A. FOIA Generally

FOIA requires federal agencies to release government records to the public upon request, subject to nine listed exceptions. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b); Wolf v. CIA, 473 F.3d 370, 374 (D.C. Cir. 2007). To prevail in a FOIA case, the plaintiff must show that an agency has (1) improperly (2) withheld (3) agency records. Dep’t of Justice v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 142 (1989); United We Stand America, Inc. v. IRS, 359 F.3d 595, 598 (D.C. Cir. 2004). Once the requested records have been produced, there is no longer a case or controversy and the FOIA action becomes moot. See Armstrong v. Exec. Office of the President, 97 F.3d 575, 582 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

The defendant in a FOIA case must show that its search for responsive records was adequate, that any exemptions claimed actually apply, and that any reasonably segregable non-exempt parts of records have been disclosed after redaction of exempt information. See Sanders v. Obama, 729 F.Supp.2d 148, 154 (D.D.C. 2010). The adequacy of a search is measured by a standard of reasonableness and depends on the individual circumstances of each case. Truitt v. Dep’t of State, 897 F.2d 540, 542 (D.C. Cir. 1990). The question is not whether other responsive records may exist, but whether the search itself was adequate. Steinberg v. Dep’t of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 551 (D.C. Cir. 1994).

To rebut a challenge to the adequacy of a search, the agency need only show that “the search was reasonably calculated to discover the requested documents, not whether it actually uncovered every document extant.” SafeCard Servs. Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197, 1201 (D.C. Cir. 1991). There is no requirement that an agency search every record system, but the agency must conduct a good faith, reasonable search of those systems of ...


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