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Shapiro v. Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 7, 2016

RYAN NOAH SHAPIRO, Plaintiff,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          PAUL L. FRIEDMAN United States District Judge.

         This is a Freedom of Information Act case brought by plaintiff Ryan Noah Shapiro against the United States Department of Justice. On March 31, 2014, the Court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment with respect to information withheld under Exemptions 6 and 7(C), but held the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment in abeyance with respect to the adequacy of the FBI's search and ordered defendant to provide further explanation as to three aspects of its search. The Court now is satisfied that defendant has conducted an adequate search of those systems of records likely to possess the information requested by plaintiff, as required under the FOIA, despite the unnecessarily piecemeal approach adopted by defendant in this case. The Court therefore will grant defendant's motion for summary judgment and deny plaintiff's motion for summary judgment with respect to the adequacy of defendant's search.

         In supplementing its production following the Court's March 31, 2014 Order, however, defendant located an additional 68 pages of responsive documents, 23 pages of which defendant withheld in part and 9 pages of which were withheld entirely pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 3, 6, 7(C), 7(E), and 7(F). Because defendant has provided only conclusory statements of its rationale for withholding these pages as to Exemptions 3 and 7(E), the Court must order defendant to provide additional specificity. It therefore will again hold portions of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment in abeyance, this time only with respect to defendant's assertion of FOIA Exemptions 3 and 7(E).[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 31, 2014, this Court held the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment in abeyance in part, pending further briefing and the FBI's processing of additional records, if necessary. See March 31, 2014 Op. at 3-4. Specifically, the Court directed the defendant to (1) consider “whether responsive records would reasonably reside outside the [Central Records System (CRS)], and either perform any additional appropriate searches in [those] databases or records . . . or explain why additional searches would not be appropriate”; (2) either “conduct a full-text search of ECF or provide further explanation as to why such a search is unnecessary in this particular case”; and (3) “provide the third-party requests and related documents received after the cut-off date or explain further why its decision to withhold these documents is reasonable.” See id. at 12-13; see also March 31, 2014 Order at 1-2.

         The FBI's renewed search identified 24 third-party FOIA requests pertaining to Aaron Swartz, 22 of which resulted in the same release of documents as those that had been provided to plaintiff; a twenty-third requestor received one additional page now provided to plaintiff. Second Hardy Decl. ¶ 9. John Greenewald, Jr. made the final request and requested documents pertaining to Aaron Swartz with specific reference to case number 288A-WF-238943, the same case number listed on each of the 23 pages of documents previously produced to plaintiff by defendant. Third Hardy Decl. ¶ 6. But the FBI ultimately identified an additional 68 pages of documents in that case file not previously processed and therefore not previously released to plaintiff, but that had been produced to Mr. Greenewald. Of these 68 pages of documents, defendant produced 35 to plaintiff in full, withheld 23 in part, and withheld 9 in full, invoking FOIA Exemptions 3, 6, 7(C), 7(E), and 7(F); one page is a duplicate page previously provided to plaintiff. Third Hardy Decl. ¶¶ 7-8. Plaintiff does not challenge defendant's withholding pursuant to Exemptions 6, 7(C), and 7(F), but does argue that defendant has improperly withheld information pursuant to Exemptions 3 and 7(E).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment.” Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009). The Court grants summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In a FOIA action to compel production of agency records, the agency “is entitled to summary judgment if no material facts are in dispute and if it demonstrates ‘that each document that falls within the class requested either has been produced . . . or is wholly exempt from the [FOIA's] inspection requirements.'” Students Against Genocide v. U.S. Dep't of State, 257 F.3d 828, 833 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (quoting Goland v. CIA, 607 F.2d 339, 352 (D.C. Cir. 1978)).

         To establish that its search for responsive records was adequate, an agency must show that it made a “good faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records, using methods which can be reasonably expected to produce the information requested.” Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990); see also 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) (noting an agency's FOIA obligations are fulfilled “if it can demonstrate beyond material doubt that its search was ‘reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents'”). A search need not be exhaustive, Saldana v. FBI, 715 F.Supp.2d 24, 26 (D.D.C. 2010), and an agency's failure to find a particular document does not undermine the determination that the search was adequate. Wilbur v. CIA, 355 F.3d 675, 678 (D.C. Cir. 2004); Nation Magazine, Wash. Bureau v. U.S. Customs Serv., 71 F.3d 885, 892 n.7 (D.C. Cir. 1995). The adequacy of a search therefore is not determined by its results but by the method of the search itself, Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984); see also Saldana v. FBI, 715 F.Supp.2d at 25-26, and principles of reasonableness guide the determination. Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d at 68.

         An agency can satisfy its burden with 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), and 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); see Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Dep't of State, 641 F.3d at 514. Such affidavits or declarations are accorded “a presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted by purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents.” Lasko v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 684 F.Supp.2d 120, 127 (D.D.C. 2010) (quoting SafeCard Servs., Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d at 1200).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Court first will consider defendant's supplemental responses as to the adequacy of its search, and then will discuss defendant's withholding of certain responsive documents pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 3 and 7(E).

         A. Adequacy of the Search

         Plaintiff makes no arguments that the government inappropriately limited its search to records related to criminal investigations or that the government has not now released to plaintiff all third-party requests previously withheld due to the search cut-off date for plaintiff's FOIA request. It is also clear that the FBI has done most of what the Court directed it to do. See Second Hardy Decl. ΒΆ 6. The only remaining issue is whether the government has ...


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