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Baldwin v. Small Business Administration

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 6, 2017




         Pro se complaints are “‘held to less stringent [pleading] standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (citation omitted). At some point, however, the Court cannot proceed with a case in the absence of a properly framed legal dispute. Here, the plaintiff, Clarence Baldwin, filed a FOIA action seeking records that the defendant, the Small Business Administration (“SBA”), allegedly failed to release in response to Baldwin's March 1, 2016, and May 18, 2016, FOIA requests. Baldwin, however, faced a substantial, threshold difficulty with his claim: The FOIA requests that he attached to his complaint did not request agency records but, rather, simply posed questions for the SBA to answer, see Dkt. 1 at 4-5 & 8-9. Because “FOIA [does not] require[] an agency to answer questions disguised as . . . FOIA request[s], . . . or to create documents . . . in response to an individual's request for information, ” Hudgins v. IRS, 620 F.Supp. 18, 21 (D.D.C. 1985) (citation omitted), that flaw ordinarily would have provided ample basis to dispose of the case. The SBA would have been justified in declining to respond to Baldwin's interrogatories, and it would have been justified in seeking dismissal of his complaint on the ground that an agency's failure to respond to interrogatories in not actionable under FOIA. See Hall v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 132 F.Supp.3d 60, 67 (D.D.C. 2015); Jean-Pierre v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 880 F.Supp.2d 95, 104 (D.D.C. 2012); Adams v. FBI, 572 F.Supp.2d 65, 68 (D.D.C. 2008).

         The SBA, however, went beyond its legal obligation and endeavored to provide Baldwin with records that, in substance, responded to his requests. After receiving his interrogatories, Laura Magere, Chief of the SBA's FOIA unit, contacted Baldwin and explained to him that “FOIA does not require federal agencies to respond to questions” and that FOIA allows members of the public “to submit written requests for . . . release of agency records.” Dkt. 11-2 at 3 (Magere Decl. ¶ 5). Magere subsequently spoke with Baldwin by telephone on several occasions and, after repeatedly asking that he submit a request for specific records, Magere sent Baldwin an email identifying the records that she believed he was seeking. Id. (Magere Decl. ¶¶ 6-7). Baldwin concurred, thanking Magere for her assistance. Id. (Magere Decl. ¶ 7). According to Magere, the records identified in her email were produced to Baldwin on July 22, 2016. Id. at 4 (Magere Decl. ¶ 8). Another SBA attorney confirmed that she processed the request, redacted certain personal and confidential information pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 4, 5 and 6, and released 327 pages of records to Baldwin on July 22. Dkt. 11-3 at 3-4 (Hulme Decl. ¶¶ 8-10).

         Because the 327 pages of records were released approximately three weeks after Baldwin brought this suit, because his complaint attached (and thus incorporated) his interrogatories, and because it did not refer to the requests for records set forth in Magere's email, it was unclear which, if any, agency records Baldwin sought to compel the SBA to release. See Dkt. 1. That lack of clarity was heightened, moreover, when Baldwin contacted counsel for the SBA in August 2016, indicating that he had received the production from the SBA but did not believe that it “contain[ed] all of the information requested.” Dkt. 9 at 2.

         In an effort to clarify matters, counsel for the SBA requested that Baldwin “send to the SBA a list of information [he] believed to be missing from the production, ” and he agreed to do so. Id. In order to provide time for Baldwin to identify any such omissions, the SBA sought an extension of time to respond to the complaint, Dkts. 9 & 10. The Court granted the SBA's motion for an extension and ordered Baldwin to “provide [the SBA] with notice of the documents he believes are missing from the productions [the SBA] has provided so far.” Minute Order, August 30, 2016.

         Baldwin failed to comply with that order, prompting the SBA to move to dismiss the complaint for lack of prosecution. Dkt. 11. In response, the Court ordered that Baldwin “either [1] provide a list of the records he [contends are] missing from the productions [the SBA had] provided so far or [2] file a brief in opposition to [the SBA's] Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Prosecution.” Dkt. 12 at 2. The Court set a deadline of November 1, 2016, for Baldwin to make this submission and cautioned that, if he failed to file a timely response, the Court might treat the SBA's motion as conceded and might “dismiss the action for failure to prosecute.” Id.

         Baldwin subsequently sought, and the Court granted, a seven-day extension of time to provide the list of records or to oppose the SBA's motion to dismiss for failure to prosecute. Minute Order, November 7, 2016. At the same time, the Court once again cautioned Baldwin that “[f]ailure to provide the list of missing records or to show cause for failure to do so may result in dismissal of this action for failure to prosecute.” Id. With this extension, Baldwin's response was due on or before November 10, 2016. Id.

         November 10, 2016, came and went without a response to the Court's orders. Finally, almost two weeks later, Baldwin filed an “opposition” to the SBA's motion on November 23, 2016. That filing, however, neither identified the records that Baldwin contends have not been produced nor explained why the case should not be dismissed for failure to prosecute. According to Baldwin's response, “[t]he list of records that are missing from production” is as follows:

1). . . . How many Loan Specialist[s] were hired permanently through SBA including contractors within the last 24 months (JANUARY 2014-JANUARY 2016)
2.) How many Loan Specialist[s] were at the production rate of 2.75 times from November 2015 to January 2016? . . . .
3.) How many [L]oan Specialists were transferred to three supervisors within 6 months of employment at SBA National Guaranty Purchase Center in Herndon, VA? . . . .
4.) Did Yvonne Singh have three Supervisors? What were their names, and was he/she terminated? . . . .
5.) How many Loan Specialists had disciplinary actions [im]posed on them for low productivity in the last 24 months from January 2014-January 2016 and their names?
6.)(a.) How many Loan Specialist production rates went up after being transferred to Ms. Linda Petty for the 18 months, ...

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