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Emanuel v. United States Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 30, 2017




         The plaintiff, Joseph Emanuel, filed this lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552, to compel disclosure of records maintained by the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) pertaining to an incident report. BOP released records, and its parent agency, the Department of Justice, has moved for summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 15. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions and the entire record, and for the reasons that follow, the Court grants the defendant's motion and enters judgment accordingly.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The plaintiff is a federal prisoner incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary in Jonesville, Virginia. In October 2015, the “Plaintiff submitted a FOIA request to the Bureau of Prisons seeking all records relating to Incident Report No. 2761076.” Def.'s Stmt. of Material Facts as to Which There is No Genuine Issue (“Def.'s Facts”) ¶ 1. BOP located fifteen responsive pages and released all but two pages on October 29, 2015. Seven of the thirteen released pages contained redacted material. Id. ¶ 5 (citing Decl. of Dominick Desanto ¶ 5, ECF No. 22-1).

         On January 11, 2017, the plaintiff filed this lawsuit to compel “ ‘full' disclosure of the photos in regards to Incident Report No.: ‘2761076' in relation to Incident of Possession of a Weapon (Homemade Knife), ” which occurred in September 2015 and for which the plaintiff was sanctioned. Compl. at 6, 8, ECF No. 1. In response, BOP “re-processed plaintiff's original FOIA request” and released all fifteen responsive pages on March 10, 2017. Ten pages contained redacted material pursuant to FOIA exemptions 6, 7(C), and 7(F), codified in 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 7-8 (citing Desanto Decl. ¶¶ 6, 7). The release included “an evidence photograph of the weapon, ” with the names of BOP staff redacted pursuant to exemptions 6, 7(C) and 7(F). Desanto Decl. ¶ 8.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that summary judgment shall be granted “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). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the “absence of a genuine issue of material fact” in dispute, Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986), while the nonmoving party must present specific facts supported by materials in the record that would be admissible at trial and that could enable a reasonable jury to find in its favor, see Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. (“Liberty Lobby”), 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Allen v. Johnson, 795 F.3d 34, 38 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (noting that, on summary judgment, appropriate inquiry is “whether, on the evidence so viewed, ‘a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party'” (quoting Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248)). “[T]hese general standards under [R]ule 56 apply with equal force in the FOIA context, ” Washington Post Co. v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 865 F.2d 320, 325 (D.C. Cir. 1989), and the D.C. Circuit has observed that “‘the vast majority of FOIA cases can be resolved on summary judgment, '” Brayton v. Office of U.S. Trade Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011).

         Federal courts are authorized under the FOIA “to enjoin the agency from withholding agency records and to order the production of any agency records improperly withheld from the complainant.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). An improper withholding occurs when an agency withholds information that is not protected by nine exemptions set forth in the statute or fails to conduct an adequate search for responsive material. When an agency's response to a FOIA request is to withhold responsive records, either in whole or in part, the agency “bears the burden of proving the applicability of claimed exemptions.” Am. Civil Liberties Union v. U.S. Dep't of Def. (“ACLU/DOD”), 628 F.3d 612, 619 (D.C. Cir. 2011).

         An agency may carry its burden of properly invoking an exemption by submitting sufficiently detailed affidavits or declarations, a Vaughn index of the withheld documents, or both, to demonstrate that the government has analyzed carefully any material withheld, to enable the court to fulfill its duty of ruling on the applicability of the exemption, and to enable the adversary system to operate by giving the requester as much information as possible, on the basis of which the requester's case may be presented to the trial court. See Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Secret Serv., 726 F.3d 208, 215 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (“In FOIA cases, ‘summary judgment may be granted on the basis of agency affidavits if they contain reasonable specificity of detail rather than merely conclusory statements, and if they are not called into question by contradictory evidence in the record or by evidence of agency bad faith.'” (alteration adopted) (quoting Consumer Fed'n of Am. v. Dep't of Agric., 455 F.3d 283, 287 (D.C. Cir. 2006))); Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of Army, 79 F.3d 1172, 1176 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (instructing that agency affidavit “should reveal as much detail as possible as to the nature of the document, without actually disclosing information that deserves protection[, ] . . . [which] serves the purpose of providing the requestor with a realistic opportunity to challenge the agency's decision” (citation omitted)); Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 746 F.3d 1082, 1088 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (noting that agency's burden is sustained by submitting affidavits that “describe the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstrate that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record nor by evidence of agency bad faith”) (quoting Larson v. U.S. Dep't of State, 565 F.3d 857, 862 (D.C. Cir. 2009)). “Ultimately, an agency's justification for invoking a FOIA exemption is sufficient if it appears ‘logical' or ‘plausible.' ” ACLU/DOD, 628 F.3d at 619 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Larson v. Dep't of State, 565 F.3d 857, 862 (D.C. Cir. 2009)).


         The plaintiff challenges the defendant's releases due to certain discrepancies he observed and redactions of third-party names. As discussed below, these challenges are unavailing.

         1. The Plaintiff's Rebuttal

         The plaintiff compares the twice released photograph page and asserts that a genuine issue of material fact exists with regard to BOP's “amended release” because (1) the redactions are different from those appearing in the initial release; (2) the photograph of the weapon “was altered to a dark appearance”; and (3) exemption 7(C) was added to exemption 7(F) as a basis for the withholdings.[1] Opp'n at 6 and Exs. 1 and 2, ECF No. 17. In its reply filed on June 26, 2017, the defendant shows that the entire photo page was re-released to the plaintiff, with only the names of two BOP employees redacted under FOIA exemptions 7(C) and 7(F). See Reply at 1-2 and Ex. A, ECF No. 18, 18-1. In addition, the defendant released “[a] more legible copy of . . . two [previously released] pages, ” Reply at 2 and Ex. B, in response to the plaintiff's criticism of the “redacted version[s] of the two pages [purportedly] released for review.”[2] Opp'n at 7 and Ex. 3. Consequently, those aspects of the plaintiff's claims are moot. See Bayala v. United States Dep't of Homeland Sec., Office of Gen. Counsel, 827 F.3d 31, 34 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (agreeing “that any dispute over the earlier withholding of the documents that the Department has now turned over is moot, ” but “only with regard to those documents”).

         2. ...

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