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Manning v. U. S. Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 11, 2017

Chelsea Manning, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. Department of Justice, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Amit P. Mehta United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In 2010, the U.S. Army charged Plaintiff Chelsea Manning, then-Private First Class Bradley Manning, with violating U.S. federal and military law for allegedly disclosing classified and confidential information to the online organization WikiLeaks. Plaintiff pleaded guilty to some of the charges in February 2013 and was convicted of others by a military judge in a court-martial in July 2013. Plaintiff now brings this Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) action against Defendants the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), seeking records related to Defendants' investigation into Plaintiff and others related to the disclosures. This action is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Defendants contend that they properly withheld all information responsive to Plaintiff's FOIA request under FOIA Exemption 7(A), which allows agencies to shield law enforcement records from public disclosure if releasing those records would interfere with an ongoing investigation. Plaintiff argues that the FBI improperly withheld records related to her alone because any investigation into her conduct that would justify such withholding must have concluded when she was convicted and sentenced. Further, Plaintiff contends that the agency improperly failed to release any non-exempt, segregable material.

         The court finds that Defendants have adequately justified their withholding of all records under Exemption 7(A). It therefore grants Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and denies Plaintiff's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment.

         II. BACKGROUND

         In 2010, the U.S. Army charged Plaintiff Chelsea Manning, then-Private First Class Bradley Manning, with violations of U.S. military and federal law for disclosing classified and confidential information to WikiLeaks. Pl.'s Cross-Mot. for Summ. J. and Resp. to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 14, at 3-7 [hereinafter Pl.'s Stmt.], ¶ 1; Defs.' Resp. to Pl.'s Stmt. of Material Facts, ECF No. 16-2 [hereinafter Defs.' Resp.], ¶ 1. In 2013, Plaintiff pleaded guilty to some of the charges and went to trial on the remaining charges. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 2; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 2. Plaintiff was convicted of espionage, theft, and computer fraud, as well as certain other military offenses, and is currently serving a 35-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 3-4; Defs.' Resp. ¶¶ 3-4.

         In February 2014, Plaintiff submitted a FOIA request to the FBI seeking information related to its investigation of Plaintiff's disclosures to WikiLeaks. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 6; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 6; Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 12 [hereinafter Defs.' Mot.], Ex. A, ECF No. 12-2 [hereinafter FOIA Request]. In March 2014, following the FBI's response that Plaintiff's request was insufficiently detailed for it to conduct an accurate search, Plaintiff submitted a modified request seeking two categories of documents: (1) records related to the investigation conducted by the FBI, the DOJ Counterespionage Section, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia “into the alleged disclosures of classified and sensitive . . . information by then- Private First Class (PFC) Bradley Edward Manning (a.k.a. Chelsea Elizabeth Manning)”; and (2) records related to the investigation of “suspected or alleged civilian co-conspirators of the disclosures alleged to have been conducted by Manning.” Pl.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 7-8; Defs.' Resp. ¶¶ 7- 8; Defs.' Mot., Ex. B, No. 12-3, at 2; Defs.' Mot., Ex. C, ECF No. 12-4, at 3.

         On April 8, 2014, in response to the first part of Plaintiff's request, the FBI conducted a search of its Central Records System using Plaintiff's name and variations of her name. Defs.' Stmt. of Material Facts, ECF No. 12-16 [hereinafter Defs.' Stmt.], Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 7; Pl.'s Resp. to Defs.' Stmt., ECF No. 14-7 [hereinafter Pl.'s Resp.], ¶ 7; Defs.' Mot., Decl. of David M. Hardy, ECF No. 12-1 [hereinafter Hardy Decl.], ¶ 30. The FBI did not, however, conduct a separate search pursuant to the second part of Plaintiff's request-for records related to others-because the FBI believed any documents responsive to the first part of Plaintiff's request would be responsive to the second part. Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 9; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 9; Hardy Decl. ¶ 32. That same day, the FBI denied Plaintiff's FOIA request, informing Plaintiff that the records responsive to her request were exempt from disclosure under FOIA Exemption 7(A). Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 11; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 11; Defs.' Mot., Ex. F, ECF No. 12-7, at 2; Hardy Decl. ¶ 11. Exemption 7(A) protects “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(A).

         Plaintiff appealed the FBI's denial of her request to the DOJ Office of Information Policy. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 14; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 14; Defs.' Mot., Ex. K, ECF No. 12-12 [hereinafter Defs.' Mot., Ex. K]. The Office of Information Policy affirmed the denial and advised Plaintiff that she could file a lawsuit in federal district court and/or request mediation services offered by the Office of Government Information Services (“OGIS”) at the National Archives and Records Administration. Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 16; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 16; Defs.' Mot., Ex. K. Plaintiff requested mediation through the OGIS in January 2015, and OGIS replied via letter in February 2015, reaffirming the FBI's decision that Exemption 7(A) applied to her request. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 16-17; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 16-17; Defs.' Mot., Ex. L, ECF No. 12-13; Defs.' Mot., Ex. N, ECF No. 12-15 [hereinafter Defs.' Mot., Ex. N]. OGIS suggested Plaintiff file a new FOIA request in the future “to see if 7(A)'s protections have been lifted.” Defs.' Mot., Ex. N. Plaintiff then filed suit in this court on October 8, 2015. Pl.'s Compl., ECF No. 1.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         A court shall grant summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). To make this determination, the court must “view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the [non-moving] party.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007) (internal quotation mark omitted). A dispute is “genuine” only if a reasonable fact-finder could find for the nonmoving party, and a fact is “material” only if it is capable of affecting the outcome of litigation. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). A non-material factual dispute cannot prevent the court from granting summary judgment. Id. at 249.

         Most FOIA cases are appropriately decided on motions for summary judgment. See Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009). A court may award summary judgment in a FOIA case by relying on the agency's 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) (internal quotation marks omitted), and if they 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). The court affords such declarations “substantial weight” if they meet these requirements. Judicial Watch v. U.S. Dep't of Def., 715 F.3d 937, 940- 41 (D.C. Cir. 2013).

         The agency bears the burden of demonstrating that a FOIA exemption applies, and its determinations are subject to de novo review in district court. U.S. Dep't of Justice v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 755 (1989) (citing 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B)). To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the agency must demonstrate that “each document that falls within the class requested either has been produced, is unidentifiable, or is wholly exempt from the Act's inspection requirements.” Goland v. Cent. Intelligence Agency, 607 F.2d 339, 352 (D.C. Cir. 1978); see also Students Against Genocide v. Dep't of State, 257 F.3d 828, 833 (D.C. Cir. 2001).

         Because “[t]he focus of FOIA is information, not documents . . . an agency cannot justify withholding an entire document simply by showing that it contains some exempt material.” Mead Data Cent., Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Air Force, 566 F.2d 242, 260 (D.C. Cir. 1977). FOIA therefore requires that “[a]ny reasonably segregable portion of [the] record shall be provided to any person requesting such record after deletion of the portions which are exempt.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). An agency must provide a “detailed justification” and not just make “conclusory statements” to support its segregability determination. Mead Data Cent., 566 F.2d at 261. Agencies, however, “are entitled to a presumption that they complied with the obligation to disclose reasonably segregable material, ” which can be overcome by contrary evidence produced by the requester. Sussman v. U.S. Marshals Serv., 494 F.3d 1106, 1117 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

         IV. ...


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