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Sanchez-Alanis v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 14, 2017




         On three separate occasions, Plaintiff Martin Sanchez-Alanis, a federal prisoner, requested records from the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552. When BOP failed to respond to the requests, Plaintiff filed a pro se “Petition for Preliminary Injunction” (hereafter “Complaint”) to compel the release of records and expungement of a disciplinary report. BOP has released responsive records and has moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's FOIA claim. BOP has also moved to dismiss Plaintiff's claims brought under the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, and for a writ of mandamus.[1] Plaintiff has filed a “Cross Motion for Summary Judgment and Request for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief for a Pattern or Practice of Illegal Conduct.” For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant Defendant's motion, deny Plaintiff's motion, and close the case.

         I. Background

         In October 2014, Plaintiff requested a copy of his “transfer file, ” specifically including: (1) investigative reports, (2) threat assessment reports, (3) recommendations of Special Investigative Services, (4) memoranda, (5) statements, (6) emails, (7) disciplinary reports, (8) Disciplinary Hearing Officer reports, (9) security designation reports, (10) management variables, (11) security level reports, and (12) final transfer request. Attach. 1 to Decl. of Christi Treadway, ECF No. 14-1 at 11. In response to this lawsuit, BOP searched Plaintiff's Inmate Central File, located six responsive pages, and released all of them to Plaintiff on August 4, 2016.[2] Five of the released pages contained redacted material. Treadway Decl. ¶ 9 and Attach. 2. BOP withheld information under FOIA exemptions 5, 6, 7(C), 7(E) and 7(F). Id.

         In August 2015, Plaintiff requested “a copy of the Disciplinary Hearing Officers Report (DHO Report)” issued in 2006 by a hearing officer at FCI Seagoville in Texas and in 2009 by a hearing officer at FCI Yazoo City in Mississippi. Attach. 3 to Treadway Decl. Following searches of Plaintiff's Inmate Central File and “Archived DHO reports, ” BOP located and released seven redacted pages to Plaintiff on August 4, 2016. Treadway Decl. ¶¶ 15-16 and Attach. 4. BOP withheld information under FOIA exemptions 6, 7(C), and 7(F). Id.

         Also in August 2015, Plaintiff requested a copy of his “initial request for records dated September 12, 2012 related to [FOIA] request No. 13-10945” and a copy of “the envelope/wrapper” containing the request. Attach. 5 to Treadway Decl. Following a search, BOP released three pages to Plaintiff in full on August 4, 2016, and informed Plaintiff that it could not locate the envelope. Attach. 6.

         II. Legal Standard

         A. FOIA

         “FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment.” Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court assumes the truth of the non-movant's evidence and draws all reasonable inferences in the non-movant's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). “[S]ummary judgment may be granted only if the moving party proves that no substantial and material facts are in dispute and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Lamb v. Millennium Challenge Corp., 228 F.Supp.3d 28, 37 (D.D.C. 2017) (internal citation omitted); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         Congress created FOIA “to pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny.” ACLU v. DOJ, 655 F.3d 1, 5 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting U.S. Dep't of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976)). Despite this broad mandate, FOIA contains a set of exceptions to the general obligation to provide government records to the public. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). These exemptions are in place “to balance the public's interest in governmental transparency against the ‘legitimate governmental and private interests [that] could be harmed by release of certain types of information.'” United Techs. Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Defense, 601 F.3d 557, 559 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (quoting Critical Mass. Energy Project v. Nuclear Reg. Comm'n, 975 F.2d 871, 872 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (en banc)). FOIA “mandates a strong presumption in favor of disclosure, ” and its “statutory exemptions, which are exclusive, are to be ‘narrowly construed.'” Nat'l Ass'n of Home Builders v. Norton, 309 F.3d 26, 32 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (quoting Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976)).

         The government therefore bears the burden to establish that the claimed FOIA exemptions apply to each document for which they are invoked. ACLU v. U.S. Dep't of Defense, 628 F.3d 612, 619 (D.C. Cir. 2011). It may satisfy this burden through declarations that describe the justifications for its withholdings in “specific detail, demonstrat[ing] that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption.” Id. But agency affidavits will not warrant summary judgment if the plaintiff puts forth contrary evidence or demonstrates the agency's bad faith. Id.

         B. Privacy Act

         “The Privacy Act imposes a set of substantive obligations on agencies that maintain systems of records, including the requirement that records used in making determinations about individuals be accurately maintained.” Skinner v. U.S. Dep't of Justice and Bureau of Prisons, 584 F.3d 1093, 1096 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (citing 5 U.S.C. § 552a(e)(5)). The Act provides civil remedies for its violation, including court-ordered amendment of records and money damages, but it also permits agencies to exempt themselves “from many of the obligations it imposes.” Id. Challenges to an agency's refusal to correct records are reviewed de novo. Mueller v. Winter, 485 F.3d 1191, 1196 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (citing 5 U.S.C. § 552a(g)(2)(A); White v. Office of Pers. Mgmt., 787 F.2d 660, 663 (D.C. Cir. 1986)).

         III. ...

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