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Benjamin v. U.S. Department of State

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 12, 2016

RICHARD BENJAMIN, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

AMY BERMAN JACKSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiff Dr. Richard Benjamin has sued the U.S. Department of State (the “State Department”) under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552 et seq., seeking documents relating to the U.S. government’s role in a June 1957 coup d’état in Haiti. Am. Compl. [Dkt. # 19] ¶ 1. Plaintiff’s lawsuit originated as a disagreement over the State Department’s withholding of four specific documents. Id. ¶ 3. Since the initiation of this action, the State Department has released two of the documents in full, and it has released the remaining two documents with minimal redactions.

The State Department has moved for summary judgment on the basis that the redactions are justified under FOIA Exemption 1, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1), because the redacted information is classified. Def.’s Renewed Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 22] (“Def.’s Mot.”); Mem. in Supp. of Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 22] (“Def.’s Mem.”) at 4-5. In support of its argument, the State Department submitted two in camera and ex parte declarations. See Def.’s Notice of Submission of In Camera Ex Parte Decl. [Dkt. # 15] (“Def.’s Decl.”); Def.’s Notice of Submission of In Camera Ex Parte Decl. [Dkt. # 23] (“Def.’s 2d Decl.”). Plaintiff opposes the motion, challenging the ex parte nature of the proceedings and arguing that there exists a genuine issue of material fact on the question of whether the documents should remain partially classified. Pl.’s Resp. in Opp. to Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 25] (“Pl.’s Opp.”). Defendant replied in support of the motion. Reply in Supp. of Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 26].

The Court will grant the State Department’s motion, because it finds that the agency’s invocation of Exemption 1 was justified.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff brings this FOIA action seeking agency records regarding the U.S. government’s role in the June 1957 coup that “ousted Haiti’s President, Daniel Fignolé, and installed notorious dictator François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier.” Am. Compl. ¶ 1. As part of plaintiff’s ongoing research into the topic, plaintiff filed a FOIA request with the National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”) on December 23, 2010. Id. ¶¶ 8, 13. His request specifically sought “several cables discussing Fignolé that the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince exchanged with the State Department in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 1957.” Id. ¶ 2.

On July 23, 2012, NARA informed plaintiff that the State Department had “partially denied his request by redacting portions of four responsive records pursuant to Exemption 1.” Id. ¶ 15.[1]Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that the State Department failed to release portions of four responsive records - a June 11, 1957 record; a June 17, 1957 record; a July 9, 1957 record; and a September 13, 1957 record. Id. ¶¶ 3, 15. Plaintiff appealed the partial denial on September 17, 2012, but the State Department’s decision was upheld by an agency review board on September 16, 2014. Id. ¶¶ 16-19.

Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on February 2, 2015, requesting that the Court declare that the June 17, 1957 and July 9, 1957 records were not exempt under Exemption 1. Compl. ¶ 3; id. at 6 (Req. for Relief) ¶ A. After the lawsuit was filed, the State Department released the July 9 document in full and also released additional information in the June 17 document. Def.’s Statement of Material Facts Not in Genuine Dispute [Dkt. # 22] (“Def.’s SOF”) ¶ 8. Only the equivalent of half of one line remained redacted in the June 17 document. Id.; Decl. of John F. Hackett (July 24, 2015), Ex. 2 to Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 22-2] (“Hackett Decl.”) ¶ 12.

Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on September 18, 2015, requesting that the Court find all four records not exempt from disclosure under Exemption 1. Am. Compl. ¶ 3; id. at 6 (Req. for Relief). On December 3, 2015, defendant released the June 11 document in part, and also released the September 13 document in full. Def.’s SOF ¶ 10; Ex. A to Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 22-3] at 1.

Because the State Department has released the July 9 and September 13 documents in full, the only issues that remain in this litigation pertain to whether the limited redactions in the June 11, 1957 and June 17, 1957 documents were proper. In support of its position that the limited redactions in those two documents were proper, the State Department filed an in camera and ex parte declaration that itself was classified. See Def.’s Decl. Defendant filed another in camera and ex parte declaration with its renewed motion for summary judgment. See Def.’s 2d Decl. The Court permitted the State Department to submit in camera and ex parte materials, see Min. Order (July 20, 2015), and the Court has reviewed the sealed material.[2]

STANDARD OF REVIEW

In a FOIA case, the district court reviews the agency’s action de novo and “the burden is on the agency to sustain its action.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); accord Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). “FOIA cases are typically and appropriately decided on motions for summary judgment.” Moore v. Bush, 601 F.Supp.2d 6, 12 (D.D.C. 2009). On a motion for summary judgment, the Court “must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, draw all reasonable inferences in his favor, and eschew making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” Montgomery v. Chao, 546 F.3d 703, 706 (D.C. Cir. 2008); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). Where a plaintiff has not provided evidence that an agency acted in bad faith, “a court may award summary judgment solely on the basis of information provided by the agency in declarations.” Moore, 601 F.Supp.2d at 12.

ANALYSIS

FOIA requires the release of government records upon request. Its purpose is “to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978). At the same time, Congress recognized “that legitimate governmental and private interests could be harmed by release of certain types of information and provided nine specific exemptions under which disclosure could be refused.” FBI v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615, 621 (1982); see also Ctr. for Nat’l Sec. Studies v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, 331 F.3d 918, 925 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (“FOIA represents a balance struck by Congress between the ...


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