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Center for Public Integrity v. U.S. Department of Energy

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 17, 2017

Center for Public Integrity, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. Department of Energy, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Amit P. Mehta United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Center for Public Integrity brought this Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) action against Defendant Department of Energy (“DOE”), seeking to compel disclosure of records concerning DOE's investigation of Sandia Corporation (“Sandia”) and its lobbying activities. Sandia is a government contractor that operates the Sandia National Laboratory, a government-owned nuclear laboratory overseen by DOE. In 2009, certain employees of Sandia and its parent company, Lockheed Martin Corporation, devised a plan to lobby federal officials to renew Sandia's contract with DOE without competitive bidding. That plan, however, was developed and carried out with the use of taxpayer funds. DOE's Office of Inspector General investigated Sandia's actions and concluded that it had violated federal laws prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars for lobbying activities. Sandia eventually reached a civil settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

         In response to Plaintiff's FOIA request, DOE produced some records in full, some in part, and withheld others in their entirety under certain statutory exemptions. Plaintiff challenges Defendant's reliance on those exemptions. Before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Defendant contends that it properly withheld information under FOIA Exemptions 3, 4, 6, 7(C), 7(E), and 7(F), as that information consists of a combination of sensitive national security information, documents implicating personal privacy interests, as well as several confidential and legally privileged proprietary business documents. Plaintiff argues that Defendant's withholding of responsive records is unjustified.

         The Court finds Defendant properly withheld information under Exemptions 3, 7(E), and 7(F), as well as certain information under Exemptions 4, 6, and 7(C). However, the court also finds that Defendant has not properly justified withholding other information under Exemptions 4, 6, and 7(C). As to that information, the court will not order its disclosure at this time, but will give Defendant the opportunity to supplement its declarations. Accordingly, the court grants in part and denies in part Defendant's Motions for Summary Judgment and denies in part Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         II.BACKGROUND

         A.DOE's Investigation into Sandia Corporation's Lobbying Activities

         Sandia Corporation (“Sandia”), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation, operates Sandia National Laboratory, which is one of three government-owned national security nuclear laboratories falling under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy (“DOE”) and its sub-component, the National Nuclear Security Administration (“NNSA”). Sandia originally contracted with Defendant to operate the nuclear laboratory in 1993. See Def.'s Second Mot. for Partial Summ. J., ECF No. 26 [hereinafter NNSA Mot.], Ex. 1, ECF No. 26-1 [hereinafter Eanes Decl.], ¶ 2; Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mots. for Summ. J., ECF No. 30 [hereinafter Pl.'s Opp'n], at 2. Sandia was annually paid $2 billion under the contract. Pl.'s Opp'n at 2.

         Sandia's contract with DOE was set to expire in 2012. In or around 2009, executives from both Lockheed Martin and Sandia formed an internal team tasked with formulating a lobbying strategy for obtaining a no-bid contract extension. Id. As part of its strategy, Sandia hired three lobbying consultants who worked closely with Lockheed and Sandia employees in order to, among other things, identify specific individuals-including government officials and members of Congress-to target in an effort to obtain the no-bid extension. Id.

         At some point, these lobbying activities came to the attention of DOE's Office of Inspector General (“OIG”). Following an investigation, OIG issued a report in November 2014, finding that Sandia had used taxpayer funds to engage in lobbying activities in violation of federal law. Id. at 2-3; Def.'s First Partial Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 22 [hereinafter DOE Mot.], Ex. 2, ECF No. 22-2, at 7-35. On August 20, 2015, Sandia reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to pay $4, 790, 042 to resolve the alleged law violations. Pl.'s Opp'n at 3-4.

         B. Plaintiff's FOIA Request

         On November 12, 2014, Plaintiff Center for Public Integrity submitted a FOIA request to DOE, seeking:

• “A full copy of the Report of Investigation, the Final Report, the Closing Memo, the Referral Letter, and the Referral Memo for Department of Energy Office of Inspector General Investigation DOE/IG-0927;” and
• “All records in your custody or under your control that pertain to Department of Energy Office of Inspector General investigation DOE/IG-0927, including but not limited to letters, e-mails, memoranda, reports, appointment calendars, and telephone call logs and any related attachments, and dated up until the date you process this request.”

Pl's Opp'n, Ex. 1, ECF No. 30-1, at 1.

         OIG subsequently identified a total of 114 documents that were responsive to Plaintiffs FOIA request, which it then reviewed for release. DOE Mot. at 3-4. Ultimately, OIG released 71 documents-27 documents in full, 44 with redactions-and withheld two documents in their entirety. Id. OIG invoked Exemptions 5, 6, and 7(C) to justify its various redactions and withholdings.[1] Id.

         Additionally, OIG forwarded 41 documents contained in the investigative file to the NNSA for its review prior to release. Id. NNSA, along with Sandia staff and other administrative agencies, reviewed and ultimately produced 39 documents with redactions. NNSA Mot. at 1-3. NNSA invoked FOIA Exemptions 3, 4, 6, 7(E), and 7(F) to justify the various redactions. Id.[2]

         After exhausting its administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action on August 13, 2015. Compl., ECF No. 1. The matter is now before the court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.

         III.STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Most FOIA cases are appropriately resolved on motions for summary judgment. Brayton v. Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011). A court must 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). 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 (1986). “Unlike the review of other agency action that must be upheld if supported by substantial evidence and not arbitrary or capricious, the FOIA expressly places the burden ‘on the agency to sustain its action' and directs the district courts to ‘determine the matter de novo.'” U.S. Dep't of Justice v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of Press, 489 U.S. 749, 755 (1989) (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B)).

         Summary judgment in a FOIA case may be based solely on information provided in an agency's 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). The agency's affidavits or declarations must “describe the documents and the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail” and “demonstrate that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption.” Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Further, they must not be “controverted by either contrary evidence in the record [or] by evidence of agency bad faith.” Id.; see Beltranena v. Clinton, 770 F.Supp.2d 175, 181-82 (D.D.C. 2011). “To successfully challenge an agency's showing that it complied with the FOIA, the plaintiff must come forward with ‘specific facts' demonstrating that there is a genuine issue with respect to whether the agency has improperly withheld extant agency records.” Span v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 696 F.Supp.2d 113, 119 (D.D.C. 2010) (quoting U.S. Dep't of Justice v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 142 (1989)).

         IV.DISCUSSION

         “The basic purpose of FOIA 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). Because of FOIA's critical role in promoting transparency and accountability, “[a]t all times courts must bear in mind that FOIA mandates a ‘strong presumption in favor of disclosure.'” Nat'l Ass'n of Home Builders v. Norton, 309 F.3d 26, 32 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (quoting U.S. Dep't of State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164, 173 (1991)). FOIA requires that “each agency, upon any request for records which (i) reasonably describes such records and (ii) is made in accordance with published rules . . . make the records promptly available to any person, ” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A), unless the records fall within one of nine narrowly construed exemptions, see 5 U.S.C. § 552(b); Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820, 823 (D.C. Cir. 1973). “Ultimately, an agency's justification for invoking a FOIA exemption is sufficient if it appears logical or plausible.” Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Def., 715 F.3d 937, 941 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Defendant invokes FOIA Exemptions 3, 4, 6, 7(C), 7(E), and 7(F) to justify its various redactions. Plaintiff challenges the applicability of the cited exemptions. The court addresses each of the parties' disputes below, starting with their contest over Exemption 4.

         A.Exemption 4

         Exemption 4 permits an agency to withhold “trade secrets and commercial or financial information [that is] obtained from a person [and is] privileged or confidential.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4). The exemption contains two threshold requirements-the information must be (1) “obtained from a person” and (2) “commercial or financial.” See Wash. Post Co. v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 252, 266 (D.C. Cir. 1982). If these ...


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