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Ahuruonye v. United States Department of Interior

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 8, 2017



          REGGIE B. WALTON United States District Judge

         The plaintiff, Barry Ahuruonye, filed this pro se civil case, alleging that the defendant, the United States Department of the Interior, violated the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (2012), and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, by improperly withholding records relating to the purported adverse employment action taken against him by the defendant. See Complaint for Injunctive Relief (“Compl.”) at 1. Currently before the Court are the Defendant's Reply Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint and Motion for Summary Judgment[1] (“Def.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 12, and the Plaintiff's Response to the Agency Submission Dated 10/5/16 and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment for the Agency's Willfully and Unlawfully Concealing, Removing, Obliterating, or Destroying Federal Records in the Form of the plaintiff's Agency's Form “Within - Grade Notice” for 2013 and 2014 pursuant to 5 CFR 531.409 - Acceptable Level of Competence Determinations (“Pl.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 14. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions, [2] the Court concludes for the following reasons that it must grant the defendant's motion for summary judgment and deny the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND[3]

         On June 18, 2015, the plaintiff submitted a FOIA request to the defendant, seeking “three items: 1) a copy of [the p]laintiff's SF-52 termination document, dated April 14, 2015; 2) a copy of the Form 2809 used to terminate [the p]laintiff's health benefit insurance on or about April 14, 2015; and 3) a copy of [the p]laintiff's Fiscal Year (‘FY') 2014 Within[]Grade [Increase] Notice.”[4] Def.'s Mot., Defendant's Statement of Material Facts Not in Genuine Dispute (“Def.'s Facts”) ¶ 1. In response, the defendant provided the plaintiff copies of the SF-52, SF-2809, and SF-2810 forms in screen shot versions and a copy of his 2014 Within Grade Increase Notice in memorandum format. See id., Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 3, 6. “Following its search for responsive records, [the defendant] sent [the p]laintiff a letter dated July 14, 2015, advising him that all records that he had sought in his June 2015 FOIA request had been released in their entirety.” Id., Def.'s Facts ¶ 4.

         On July 15, 2015, the plaintiff sent an e-mail to the defendant, stating that none of the information he sought in his June 2015 FOIA request had been released to him. Particularly, the plaintiff noted that he did not receive a copy of the SF-2809 form or copies of both the SF-52 form and the 2014 Within Grade Increase Noice in the formats requested. Id., Def.'s Facts ¶ 6. On July 16, 2015, in response to the plaintiff's concerns, the defendant sent a letter to the plaintiff, explaining that a hard copy of the SF-52 form did not exist because that form “was not maintained as a hard-copy record in [the defendant's] office after processing, ” and because an “[electronic] process [had] replaced the use of hard copy SF-52 [forms].” Id., Def.'s Facts ¶ 7. Therefore, “to fulfill [the p]laintiff's request, [the defendant] provided [hard-copy print-outs of the] screen shots of the electronic file, which is the e-version of an SF-52.” Id., Def.'s Facts ¶ 7. Additionally, as part of its response, the defendant “advised [the p]laintiff that the SF-2809 . . . is used to initiate employee enrollment in the [Federal Employee Health Benefits] system (which was provided), ” in addition to the SF-2810 form relating to the termination of his federal health benefits as part of its response. Id., Def.'s Facts ¶ 7. Finally, the defendant “informed [the p]laintiff that the 2014 [Within Grade Increase Notice] did not have a system-generated form due to the prior [Within Grade Increase] denial, ” and as a result, “a memo[random] was issued, ” which it provided to the plaintiff. Id., Def.'s Facts ¶ 7.

         On July 27, 2015, the plaintiff filed this FOIA action, alleging that the defendant failed to provide him his 2014 Within Grade Increase Notice and a copy of his SF-2809 form as requested.[5] See generally Compl. The defendant now moves for summary judgment, asserting that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because “all responsive records that [the p]laintiff requested have already been released to him, in full and un-redacted, ” Def.'s Mot. at 2, and “[b]ecause no records have been withheld, ” id. at 5. The plaintiff both opposes the defendant's motion to dismiss and cross-moves for summary judgment, arguing that the 2014 Within Grade Increase Notice provided to him in memorandum format is not the document requested, and that the document he requested is within the agency's possession. Pl.'s Mot. at 1- 2.


         The Court must grant a motion for 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). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000)). The Court must therefore draw “all justifiable inferences” in the non-moving party's favor and accept the non-moving party's evidence as true. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). The non-moving party, however, cannot rely on “mere allegations or denials.” Burke v. Gould, 286 F.3d 513, 517 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). Thus, “[c]onclusory allegations unsupported by factual data will not create a triable issue of fact.” Pub. Citizen Health Research Grp. v. FDA, 185 F.3d 898, 908 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (alteration in original) (quoting Exxon Corp. v. FTC, 663 F.2d 120, 126-27 (D.C. Cir. 1980)). If the Court concludes that “the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of [its] case with respect to which [it] has the burden of proof, ” then the moving party is entitled to summary judgment. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). However, “in ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, the [C]ourt shall grant summary judgment only if one of the moving parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law upon material facts that are not genuinely disputed.” Shays v. FEC, 424 F.Supp.2d 100, 109 (D.D.C. 2006) (citation omitted).

         FOIA cases are typically resolved on motions for summary judgment. Ortiz v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 67 F.Supp.3d 109, 116 (D.D.C. 2014); Defs. of Wildlife v. U.S. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009). The Court will grant summary judgment to the government in a FOIA case only if the agency can prove “that it has fully discharged its obligations under the FOIA, after the underlying facts and the inferences to be drawn from them are construed in the light most favorable to the FOIA requester.” Friends of Blackwater v. U.S. Dep't of the Interior, 391 F.Supp.2d 115, 119 (D.D.C. 2005) (quoting Greenberg v. U.S. Dep't of Treasury, 10 F.Supp.2d 3, 11 (D.D.C. 1998)). Thus, in a lawsuit brought to compel the production of documents under the FOIA, “an 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 . . . has been produced.'” Students Against Genocide v. Dep't of State, 257 F.3d 828, 833 (quoting Goland v. CIA, 607 F.2d 339, 352 (D.C. Cir. 1978)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Plaintiff's FOIA Claims

         The plaintiff argues that the defendant violated the FOIA by failing to provide his 2014 Within Grade Increase Notice.[6] Pl.'s Compel Mot. I at 1. Specifically, he asserts that the memorandum the defendant provided to him in response to his request for the 2014 Within Grade Increase Notice “has nothing to do with” the specific document requested. Id. at 5. According to the plaintiff, the document requested is separate and distinct from the defendant's memorandum because the document requested contains the specific date the defendant made its “Acceptable [L]evel of [C]ompetence determination[s]” for each respective year, whereas the document provided does not contain that information. Id.

         “The adequacy of an agency's search is measured by a standard of reasonableness and is dependent upon the circumstances of the case.” Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344, 1351 (D.C. Cir. 1983) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “An agency ‘fulfills its obligations under [the] FOIA if it can demonstrate beyond material doubt that its search was reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents, '” Hall v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 132 F.Supp.3d 60, 66 (D.D.C. 2015) (Walton, J.) (quoting Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Dep't of State, 641 F.3d 504, 514 (D.C. Cir. 2011)); however, “a search is not legally inadequate merely because it yields no responsive records, ” id. To demonstrate that it has conducted an adequate search, “the agency may submit affidavits or declarations that explain in reasonable detail the scope and method of its search, [and i]n the absence of contrary evidence, such affidavits or declarations are sufficient to demonstrate an agency's compliance with the FOIA.” Id. Moreover, “[a]gency declarations generally are entitled to a presumption of good faith, ” id. at 67 (citing Ground Saucer Watch v. CIA, 692 F.2d 770, 771 (D.C. Cir. 1981)), and therefore, “[t]o 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)).

         Here, the defendant has demonstrated that it conducted a search that was reasonably calculated to uncover the plaintiff's requested documents, satisfying its obligations under the FOIA. To support its position that it performed a reasonable search and released all responsive documents to the plaintiff, the defendant submitted a declaration from Shelley Hartmann, the Acting FOIA Officer for the defendant's Fish and Wildlife Service. See generally Def.'s Mot., Exhibit (“Ex.”) 1 (Declaration of Shelley Hartmann (“Hartmann Decl.”)). In her declaration, Hartmann attested to her familiarity with the procedures followed for responding to FOIA requests, the procedures that were used in response to the plaintiff's FOIA request, and the defendant's response to the plaintiff's FOIA request. See id, Ex. 1 (Hartmann Decl.) ¶¶ 2-3. She noted that the defendant's Human Resources Division, which oversees matters relating to personnel records, conducted a search for the plaintiff's requested items using “the plaintiff's name and the plaintiff's social security number, ” without imposing any date restrictions on the search. Id., Ex. 1 (Hartmann Decl.) ¶ 6. Hartmann also stated that the defendant “made a good faith effort to find all extent [sic] records responsive to the request and searched all files likely to contain responsive records, ” which resulted in the release of the 2014 Within Grade Increase denial memorandum to the plaintiff. Id., Ex. 1 (Hartmann Decl.) ¶ 7. According to the defendant, “[t]he 2014 [Within Grade Increase Notice] did not have a system[-]generated form due to the prior Within Grade ...

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