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Wilson v. U.S. Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 28, 2016

BRYAN WILSON, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Bryan Wilson submitted a Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") request to the Department of Justice's ("DOJ's") Executive Office for United States Attorneys ("EOUSA")[1] to obtain specific types of records related to his prior criminal conviction in the District of Columbia. EOUSA released nine pages of responsive records after Wilson filed his Complaint. The government has since moved for summary judgment. Because the declaration accompanying DOJ's motion leaves substantial doubt as to the sufficiency of its search, the Court will grant in part and deny in part the government's motion.

         I. Background

         On May 25, 2014, Wilson requested "a true copy of the original indictment, complete with the signatures of the indicting grand jury, " and "a copy of any requests for subpoena, or affidavits in support of court order or warrant for authorization to obtain cell site information" for a specified telephone number. Def's Mot. Summ. J. ("MSJ") Ex. A, at 1. On June 12, 2014, EOUSA informed Wilson that his request could not be processed because it did not include a certification of his identity and did not specify a particular U.S. Attorney's Office in which the records might be found. Id. Ex. B, at 1. On December 8, 2014, Wilson followed up by requesting "copies of any & all affidavits and motions to the Superior Court for the District of Columbia and District of Columbia Court of Appeals moving those Courts for an order requiring Nextel Inc. to turn over cell site records" for Wilson's cell phone to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia or the Metropolitan Police Department. Id. Ex. C, at 1. EOUSA produced nine pages of records to Wilson, but it also invoked FOIA Exemption 7(C), 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7), to justify redacting personal identifying information for certain DOJ employees, law-enforcement personnel, and third parties assisting with the underlying investigation. This response to Wilson's latter FOIA request is properly before the Court.[2]

         The government has moved for summary judgment, claiming that no genuine dispute exists as to the adequacy of its search and the propriety of its limited withholdings. Wilson, proceeding pro se, contests that the government has demonstrated the sufficiency of its search beyond material doubt.

         II. Standard of Review

         Congress enacted FOIA "to pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny." ACLU v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 655 F.3d 1, 5 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting Dep't of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976)). The statute imposes a general obligation on federal agencies to provide records to the public. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a). Although FOIA exempts certain categories of documents from this general obligation to disclose, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b), the statute exists "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). Thus, FOIA exemptions are "explicitly made exclusive, " Milner v. U.S. Dep't of Navy, 562 U.S. 562, 565 (2011) (quoting EPA v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73, 79 (1973)), and they "must be 'narrowly construed, '" id (citing FBI v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615, 630 (1982)).

         FOIA cases are typically decided on motions for summary judgment. Brayton v. Office of U.S. Trade Rep., 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011). In deciding such a motion, a court must assume the truth of the non-movant's evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the non-movant's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). In order to meet its FOIA obligations and prevail on a motion for summary judgment, "the government must demonstrate that it conducted an adequate search and produced all responsive records not properly withheld under FOIA's nine statutory exemptions." Sack v. CIA, 49 F.Supp. 3d 15, 19 (D.D.C. 2014).

         An agency cannot satisfy this burden with affidavits that are vague or conclusory, or that merely parrot the statutory standard. Consumer Fed'n of Am. v. U.S. Dep't of Agric, 455 F.3d 283, 287 (D.C. Cir. 2006). When an agency's search is questioned, it must show "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) (quoting Valencia-Lucena v. U.S. Coast Guard, 180 F.3d 321, 325 (D.C. Cir. 1999)) (internal quotation marks omitted). On summary judgment, a court may rely on a "reasonably detailed" declaration that sets forth "the search terms and the type of search performed, and averring that all files likely to contain responsive material. . . were searched." Id. (quoting Oglesby v. U.S. Pep't of the Army. 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Such a declaration is "accorded a presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted by purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents." 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)) (internal quotation marks omitted). But if the record "leaves substantial doubt as to the sufficiency of the search, summary judgment for the agency is not proper." Truitt v. U.S. Dep't of State, 897 F.2d 540, 542 (D.C. Cir. 1990).

         III. Analysis

         A. Partial Withholdings Based on Exemption 7(C)

         The government has cited FOIA Exemption 7(C) as authority for redacting from the documents it produced to Wilson personal identifying information for certain DOJ employees, law-enforcement personnel, and third parties. Under that exemption, FOIA's general obligations do not apply to "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, " but only insofar as such production could-as relevant here-"reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Id. § 552(b)(7)(C). The government contends that identifying the individuals who helped investigate and prosecute Wilson "would shed no light on [DOJ's] performance of [its] statutory duties." MS J 7. Wilson does not challenge these minimal withholdings, and the Court finds them to be justified for the reason the government states. See Schrecker v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 349 F.3d 657, 661 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (citing cases that have "consistently supported nondisclosure of names or other information identifying [third-party] individuals appearing in law enforcement records, including investigators, suspects, witnesses, and informants"). Accordingly, the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of the government on this aspect of the case.

         B. The Adequacy of DOJ's Search

         DOJ has attempted to establish the adequacy of its search through the declaration of David Luczynski, Attorney Advisor for EOUSA. Mr. Luczynski did not personally search for records responsive to Wilson's FOIA request; he instead relied on a liaison in the appropriate U.S. ...

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