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Wadelton v. Department of State

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 22, 2016

JOAN WADELTON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF STATE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

         Plaintiff Joan Wadelton is a retired Foreign Service Officer involved in litigation against the Department of State (“State”) concerning her non-promotion. In this Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) action, joined by the progressive blog Truthout, she seeks documents about her that were maintained in various State Department offices, including the Bureau of Human Resources (“HR”), the Office of the Under Secretary for Management (“Management”), and the Office of the Legal Advisor (“Legal”). Defendant filed a motion for partial summary judgment on January 5, 2015, as to records maintained by HR and Management. (Def. Mot. Partial Summ. J., ECF No. 44). This court denied the motion, finding some of the Defendant's explanations of their searches inadequate: their justifications for having only searched the emails and files of one employee in the Grievance division of HR, and only two unnamed employees in HR's Performance Evaluation division; their explanation of the decision to search only Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy's unclassified emails, and no other records of his; their description of one document withheld as work product; and their segregability analysis. Wadelton v. Department of State, 106 F.Supp.3d 139 (D.D.C. 2015).

         Defendant renewed its summary judgment motion on August 31, 2015, as to HR and Management, and also moved for summary judgment as to Legal. Because the Defendant has satisfied the court with additional details regarding the issues for which summary judgment was previously denied as to HR and Management, and because the court finds the Defendant has adequately resolved Plaintiffs' objections to withholding of seven Legal documents in full, summary judgment for the Defendant will be GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 1, 2012, Wadelton submitted a FOIA request for “copies of all [State Department] emails or other documents pertaining to [Wadelton] from 2000-present maintained or created by the Bureau of Human Resources or, in the case of emails, in which a Bureau of Human Resources employee or contractor was a sender or recipient.” (Def. First Statement of Material Facts ¶ 1, ECF No. 44).[1] She also requested copies of all “emails or other documents pertaining to [her] from 2004-present maintained or created by the Office of the Under Secretary for Management or, in the case of emails, in which an Office of the Under Secretary for Management employee or contractor was a sender or recipient.” (Id. ¶ 2).

         State conducted a number of searches: Melinda Chandler, Director of the Grievance Staff of the HR department, searched the Grievance office shared drive and her own files and emails, as well as a file drawer containing paper records pertaining to Wadelton; two Performance Evaluation staff searched the Performance Evaluation shared drive and their own files and emails; the Chief Policy Advisor of Retirement searched the Retirement shared drive and their own files; and the Under Secretary for Management, Patrick Kennedy, searched his State Department emails. In addition, Management searched the Retired Records Inventory Management System. State also conducted searches within Legal, specifically the Office of Employment Law-a paralegal searched paper and electronic files for Wadelton's name, and staff member files of those who worked on Wadelton's case were also searched-and withheld various documents pursuant to FOIA exemptions (b)(5) and (b)(6) and the Privacy Act.

         State originally withheld documents pursuant to six exemptions and provided a Vaughn index identifying the documents withheld and the reason. It filed for summary judgment as to the HR and Management documents. The court denied summary judgment, and State now responds to the court's concerns about its HR and Management records and also moves for summary judgment as to its Office of Employment Law disclosures.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate where the record shows there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Waterhouse v. District of Columbia, 298 F.3d 989, 991 (D.C. Cir. 2002). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). “A fact is ‘material' if a dispute over it might affect the outcome of a suit under governing law; factual disputes that are ‘irrelevant or unnecessary' do not affect the summary judgment determination.” Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). “An issue is ‘genuine' if ‘the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” Id. (quoting Anderson 477 U.S. at 248). The party seeking summary judgment “bears the heavy burden of establishing that the merits of his case are so clear that expedited action is justified.” Taxpayers Watchdog, Inc., v. Stanley, 819 F.2d 294, 297 (D.C. Cir. 1987).

         FOIA cases are “typically and appropriately” decided on motions for summary judgment. Gold Anti-Trust Action Comm., Inc. v. Bd. of Governors of the Fed. Reserve Sys., 762 F.Supp.2d 123, 130 (D.D.C. 2011) (citation omitted). Upon an agency's request for summary judgment in its favor on the grounds that it has fully discharged its FOIA obligations, all underlying facts and inferences are analyzed in the light most favorable to the FOIA requester; only after an agency proves that it has fully discharged its FOIA obligations is summary judgment appropriate. Moore v. Aspin, 916 F.Supp. 32, 35 (D.D.C. 1996).

         In cases concerning the applicability of exemptions and the adequacy of an agency's search efforts, summary judgment may be based solely on information provided in the agency's supporting declarations. See, e.g., ACLU v. U.S. Dep't of Def., 628 F.3d 612, 619 (D.C. Cir. 2011); Students Against Genocide v. Dep't of State, 257 F.3d 828, 838 (D.C. Cir. 2001). “If an agency's affidavit describes the justifications for withholding the information with specific detail, demonstrates that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and is not contradicted by contrary evidence in the record or by evidence of the agency's bad faith, then summary judgment is warranted on the basis of the affidavit alone.” ACLU, 628 F.3d at 619. “Ultimately, an agency's justification for invoking a FOIA exemption is sufficient if it appears ‘logical' or ‘plausible.'” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Larson v. Dep't of State, 565 F.3d 857, 862 (D.C. Cir. 2009)). However, a motion for summary judgment should be granted in favor of the FOIA requester where “an agency seeks to protect material which, even on the agency's version of the facts, falls outside the proffered exemption.” Coldiron v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 310 F.Supp.2d 44, 48 (D.D.C. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Petroleum Info. Corp. v. Dep't of Interior, 976 F.2d 1429, 1433 (D.C. Cir. 1992)).

         In considering the adequacy of an agency's search in response to a FOIA request,

[t]he question is not “whether there might exist any other documents possibly responsive to the request, but rather whether the search for those documents was adequate. The adequacy of the search, in turn, is judged by a standard of reasonableness and depends, not surprisingly, upon the facts of each case. In demonstrating the adequacy of the search, the agency may rely upon reasonably detailed, nonconclusory affidavits submitted in good faith.”

Steinberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 551 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (citation omitted). An agency may prove the reasonableness of its search through a declaration of a responsible agency official, so long as the declaration reasonably details the documents and justifications for nondisclosure and is not controverted by contrary evidence or evidence of bad faith. Sanders v. Obama, 729 F.Supp.2d 148, 155 (D.D.C. 2010), aff'd sub nom. Sanders v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 10-5273, 2011 WL 1769099 (D.C. Cir. Apr. 21, 2011) (citing Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981)). Although the agency is not required to search every record system, it must make a good faith effort to reasonably search systems that are likely to contain the requested information. Oglesby v. Dep 't of Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990).

         The agency declaration can demonstrate reasonableness by “setting forth the search terms and the type of search performed, and averring that all files likely to contain responsive materials (if such records exist) were searched.” Sanders, 729 F.Supp.2d at 155 (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). Once an agency has provided adequate affidavits, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the agency did not make good faith search. Id. The presumption of good faith “cannot be rebutted by ‘purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents.'” SafeCard Servs. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (citation omitted).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Adequacy of State's search

         i. ...


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