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Chase v. United States Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 15, 2018

DENNIS CHASE, Plaintiff,



         Pro se Plaintiff Dennis Chase, a federal prisoner, seeks to obtain documents relating to his 2011 arrest, booking, and detention in Minnesota. To that end, he submitted several Freedom of Information Act requests to Defendants Department of Justice, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, U.S. Marshals Service, and Federal Bureau of Investigation in late 2015 and early 2016. When these requests were left unanswered for over a year, he filed this civil action to compel Defendants to respond. Defendants thereafter released several hundred pages of information; claiming that they have fully satisfied their FOIA obligations, they now move for summary judgment. Believing the opposite, Chase has cross-moved for summary judgment. Finding Defendants have adequately complied with FOIA's dictates, the Court will grant their Motion.

         I. Background

         Beginning in November 2015, Plaintiff sent FOIA requests to USMS and EOUSA seeking, inter alia, all records concerning his detention, arrest, booking, and criminal prosecution for the transportation and possession of child pornography in 2011. See ECF No. 1 (Complaint), Exhs. A (USMS FOIA Request); E (EOUSA FOIA Request). Both agencies proceeded to request verification of identity - although EOUSA did so 44 days beyond the 20 business days required by FOIA - which Chase then provided. See Compl., Exhs. A; B (US Marshal Verification Request); C (Certification of Identity); D (Letter to USMS); E; F (EOUSA Verification Request); G (Certification of Identity). Several months of follow-up calls by Chase and delayed or limited responses by EOUSA and USMS ensued. See Compl. at 4-6. Having grown frustrated with this non-responsiveness, Plaintiff filed this Complaint on February 23, 2017. Spurred to action, those agencies then conducted a search for relevant documents and have now released 458 pages to Plaintiff, 15 of which are partially redacted. See ECF Nos. 28-2 (Declaration of Princina Stone), ¶ 13; 28-9 (Declaration of William E. Bordley), ¶ 7. EOUSA additionally referred approximately 1, 216 pages of records to the FBI for its review and direct response to Plaintiff. See ECF No. 28-11 (Declaration of David M. Hardy), ¶ 5.

         The Bureau then sent Plaintiff a letter notifying him that it had received the records from EOUSA and informing him of the estimated total cost for processing his request. See Hardy Decl., Exh. A. Chase responded with a request for a waiver of those fees pursuant to 28 C.F.R. §§ 16.10(K), which requires agencies to waive fees when disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest. Id., Exh. B. The FBI denied his request. Id., Exh. C. Plaintiff then appealed to DOJ's Office of Information Policy, id., Exh. E, but that appeal was denied. Id., Exh. F. In response, Chase successfully sought leave to add the FBI as a party to this suit. See Minute Order of October 10, 2017. Given this state of affairs, both parties have now filed for summary judgment.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment may 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). A fact is “material” if it is capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the litigation. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007); Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248. “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion” by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In the event of conflicting evidence on a material issue, the Court is to construe the conflicting evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Sample v. Bureau of Prisons, 466 F.3d 1086, 1087 (D.C. Cir. 2006).

         FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment. See Brayton v. Office of U.S. Trade Rep., 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011). In a FOIA case, the Court may accept an “agency's affidavits, without pre-summary judgment discovery, if the affidavits are made in good faith and provide reasonably specific detail concerning the methods used to produce the information sought.” Broaddrick v. Exec. Office of the President, 139 F.Supp.2d 55, 64 (D.D.C. 2001). “Agency affidavits are accorded a presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted by purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents.” SafeCard Servs., Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (quotation marks and citation omitted). “Unlike the review of other agency action that must be upheld if supported by substantial evidence and not arbitrary or capricious, the FOIA expressly places the burden ‘on the agency to sustain its action' and directs the district courts to ‘determine the matter de novo.'” Dep't of Justice v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 755 (1989) (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B)).

         III. Analysis

         Congress enacted FOIA in order “to pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny.” Dep't of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976) (quotation marks and citation omitted). “The basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978). The statute provides that “each agency, upon any request for records which (i) reasonably describes such records and (ii) is made in accordance with published rules . . . shall make the records promptly available to any person.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A). Consistent with this statutory mandate, federal courts have jurisdiction to order the production of records that an agency improperly withholds. See id. § 552(a)(4)(B); Reporters Comm., 489 U.S. at 754-55. “At all times courts must bear in mind that FOIA mandates a ‘strong presumption in favor of disclosure.'” Nat'l Ass'n of Home Builders v. Norton, 309 F.3d 26, 32 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (quoting Dep't of State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164, 173 (1991)).

         The Court will look first at the adequacy of Defendants' search for responsive documents, turn next to the exemptions they claim justify withholding certain documents and information, then assess the segregability of the withheld information, and finally discuss whether the FBI properly denied Plaintiff's fee-waiver request.

         A. Adequacy of Search

         “An agency fulfills its obligations under FOIA if it can demonstrate beyond material doubt that its search was ‘reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.'” Valencia-Lucena v. Coast Guard, 180 F.3d 321, 325 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (quoting Truitt v. Dep't of State, 897 F.2d 540, 542 (D.C. Cir. 1990)); see also Steinberg v. Dep't of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 551 (D.C. Cir. 1994). “[T]he issue to be resolved is not whether there might exist any other documents possibly responsive to the request, but rather whether the search for those documents was adequate.” Weisberg v. Dep't of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984).

         The adequacy of an agency's search for documents requested under FOIA “is judged by a standard of reasonableness and depends, not surprisingly, upon the facts of each case.” Id. To meet its burden, the agency may submit affidavits or declarations that explain the scope and method of its search “in reasonable detail.” Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 127 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (per curiam). The affidavits or declarations should “set[] forth the search terms and the type of search performed, and aver[] that all files likely to contain responsive materials (if such records exist) were searched.” Oglesby v. Dep't of Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990). Absent contrary evidence, such affidavits or declarations are sufficient to show that an agency complied ...

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