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Pinson v. U.S. Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 22, 2017

JEREMY PINSON Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, et al., Defendants. Re Document No. 318

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS United States District Judge

         Granting Defendants' Supplemental Motion for Summary Judgment

         While in prison, pro se plaintiff Jeremy Pinson filed multiple Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests seeking records from various components of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”). In addition to releasing a number of records to Pinson, the DOJ asked Pinson to clarify some of her[1] records requests, told her that it could not find records responsive to some of her requests, and informed her that some of the records she sought were exempt from disclosure by law. Pinson filed a complaint challenging some of these determinations and alleging that the DOJ improperly withheld records.

         At issue in this Opinion is the propriety of the Bureau of Prisons' (“BOP”) withholdings from two memoranda that it released in part. Each memorandum documents the Special Administrative Measures (“SAMs”) imposed on an individual in BOP custody. The DOJ moves for summary judgment as to the propriety of the withholdings, arguing that the BOP correctly applied FOIA Exemptions 6, 7(C), 7(E), and 7(F). See Defs.' Suppl. MSJ, ECF No. 318. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants the DOJ's motion for summary judgment.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         This Court has already explained the factual background in detail in a prior Memorandum Opinion. See Mem. Op., Pinson v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 2016 WL 29245, at *1-5 (D.D.C. Jan. 4, 2016), ECF No. 259. The Court assumes familiarity with its prior opinion and confines its discussion to the facts most relevant to the present motion.

         In 2010, Pinson submitted a FOIA request to the DOJ's Office of Information Policy (“OIP”)[2] seeking “any correspondence or electronic messages generated after January 21, 2009 by the Attorney General, or staff within the Attorney General's office, addressed to or intended for the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.” Decl. Vanessa R. Brinkmann (Brinkmann Decl.) ¶ 4 & Ex. A, ECF No. 131-3. The records responsive to this request included two SAMs memoranda-one from 2009 and one from 2010.

         SAMs are special conditions of confinement implemented by the Attorney General with regards to a specific inmate as “reasonably necessary to protect persons against the risk of death or serious bodily injury.” 28 C.F.R. § 501.3(a). These measures may include limitations on the individual's access to the mail, media, telephone, and visitors. See Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. at 11- 12, ECF No. 239 (citing Decl. Ronald L. Rodgers ¶ 12(a), ECF No. 239-1). The SAMs memoranda at issue here memorialize the Attorney General's SAMs decisions with respect to two inmates and recount in detail the criminal conduct of the individuals subject to the orders, those individuals' continued threat to public safety, and the terms of the SAMs themselves. See Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. at 11-12, ECF No. 239. The 2009 SAMs memorandum concerned a convicted prisoner, and the 2010 SAMs memorandum concerned a pretrial detainee. 4th Christenson Decl. ¶¶ 6-7.

         In its initial response to Pinson, the DOJ withheld, inter alia, the entirety of both memoranda. See Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. at 11, ECF No. 239. However, after this Court denied the DOJ summary judgment[3] on its withholdings, the BOP re-processed Pinson's request and released both SAMs memoranda in part, with some redactions. 4th Christenson Decl. ¶¶ 4-5, 49 & Ex. E; see also Mem. Op., Pinson, 2016 WL 4074130, at *4, ECF No. 306. The BOP now claims that it has properly withheld portions of the SAMs memoranda pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 6, 7(C), 7(E), and 7(F). See Letter to Pinson, ECF No. 318-2. The DOJ again moves for summary judgment on the grounds that it has properly applied FOIA exemptions and released all segregable material. Defs.' Suppl. MSJ at 1-2.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “[D]isclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of [FOIA].” Dep't of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976). “Consistent with this purpose, agencies may withhold only those documents or portions thereof that fall under one of nine delineated statutory exemptions.” Elliot v. USDA, 596 F.3d 842, 845 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (citing 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)). “[T]he exemptions are ‘explicitly exclusive.'” U.S. Dep't of Justice v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 151 (1989) (quoting FAA Adm'r v. Robertson, 422 U.S. 255, 262 (1975)).

         It is the agency's burden to show that withheld material falls within one of these exemptions. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); Elliott, 596 F.3d at 845. “The [C]ourt . . . ‘impose[s] a substantial burden on an agency seeking to avoid disclosure' through the FOIA exemptions.” Morley v. CIA, 508 F.3d 1108, 1114 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (quoting Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820, 828 (D.C. Cir. 1973)) (alteration in original). Accordingly, disclosure exemptions are “narrowly construed, ” and “‘conclusory and generalized allegations of exemptions' are unacceptable.” See Morley, 508 F.3d at 1114-15 (quoting Founding Church of Scientology of Wash., D. C., Inc. v. Nat'l Sec. Agency, 610 F.2d 824, 830 (D.C. Cir. 1979)). However, courts generally respect the factual reasoning of agencies, and “[u]ltimately[] an agency's justification for invoking a FOIA exemption is sufficient if it appears ‘logical' or ‘plausible.'” Wolf v. CIA, 473 F.3d 370, 374-75 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (quoting Gardels v. CIA, 689 F.2d 1100, 1105 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). Thus, “a reviewing court should ‘respect the expertise of an agency' and not ‘overstep the proper limits of the judicial role in FOIA review.'” Pinson v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 160 F.Supp.3d 285, 293 (D.D.C. 2016) (quoting Hayden v. Nat'l Sec. Agency/Cent. Sec. Serv., 608 F.2d 1381, 1388 (D.C. Cir. 1979)).

         “FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment.” Defs. of Wildlife v. U.S. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009) (citing Bigwood v. U.S. Agency for Int'l Dev., 484 F.Supp.2d 68, 73 (D.D.C. 2007)). Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment must be granted when the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show “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); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986).

         Even when the requester does not explicitly challenge a withholding, the court must independently consider if the agency has shown that the undisputed material facts entitle it to summary judgment. See Winston & Strawn, LLP v. McLean, 843 F.3d 503, 505 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (“‘The nonmoving party's failure to oppose summary judgment does not shift [the moving party's] burden.' The District Court ‘must always determine for itself whether the record and any undisputed material facts justify granting summary judgment.'” (quoting Grimes v. District of Columbia, 794 F.3d 83, 97 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (Griffith, J., concurring))). Even though Pinson does not respond to some portions of the DOJ's motion for summary judgment, the court cannot grant the motion on the basis that it was conceded. See Id. at 505 (“Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a motion for summary judgment cannot be ‘conceded' for want of opposition.” (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(3))).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The DOJ argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because it properly applied FOIA Exemptions 6, 7(C), 7(E), and 7(F) to withhold portions of both SAMs memoranda. See generally Defs.' Suppl. MSJ, ECF No. 318; 4th Christenson Decl. Because all of the portions of the records withheld under Exemptions 6 or 7(F) were also withheld under Exemptions 7(C) or 7(E), [4] and the Court concludes, infra, that Exemptions ...


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