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Knowles v. U.S. Department of State

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 29, 2018

SAMUEL KNOWLES, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RICHARD J. LEON United States District Judge

         Samuel Knowles ("Knowles" or "plaintiff), appearing pro se, sues the United States Department of State ("State Department" or "defendant") under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552. The State Department has released responsive records and has moved for summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Dkt. #19]. Plaintiff has filed a motion for the Court to take judicial notice of "a stipulated fact" that is not clearly defined. See Pet'r Requesting Court to Take Judicial Notice [Dkt. # 24]. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions, the record, and the relevant case law, the Court finds no genuine dispute surrounding defendant's compliance with the FOIA. Therefore, defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED and plaintiffs Motion to Take Judicial Notice is DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         The documented facts are as follows. In a FOIA request dated January 22, 2014, plaintiff sought:

1) any and all information regarding communications between the Bahamian authorities and the United States Drug Enforcement Agency about [plaintiffs] transport to the United States. 2) Any and all information regarding the diplomatic process involved in [plaintiffs] extradition from the Bahamas to the United States. 3) The names of all U.S. and Bahamian agents and personnel involved in the scheduling and execution of the flight.

Decl. of Eric F. Stein ("Stein Decl."), Ex. 1, at 1 [Dkt. # 19-4].

         The State Department released responsive records between May 2015 and March 2017. On May 9, 2015, it released seven documents, four with redactions. Stein Decl. ¶ 6. On December 21, 2016, it released twenty-one documents, fourteen with redactions, and withheld six documents completely. Id. ¶ 9. On January 31, 2017, it released five documents, one with redactions, and withheld one document completely. Id.¶ 11. The State Department withheld information under FOIA exemptions 1, 5, 6, and 7(C), codified in 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). See Id. ¶¶ 33-59.

         In addition, the State Department referred a "one page extradition memorandum" to the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA"), which, on March 13, 2017, released the document with third-party names redacted under FOIA exemptions 7(C) and 7(F). Decl. of Katherine L. Myrick ¶¶ 8-9 ("Myrick Decl.") [Dkt. # 19-6]. Defendant also referred eighteen documents, totaling forty-one pages, to the Department of Justice's Criminal Division, which withheld them in full under FOIA exemptions 5, 6 and 7(C)., Decl. of Gail A. Brodfuehrer ¶ 8 ("Brodfuehrer Decl.") [Dkt. # 19-5].

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate "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). FOIA cases are routinely decided on motions for summary judgment. See Brayton v. Office of U.S. Trade Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011).

         "FOIA requires executive branch agencies to make their records available 'to any person' upon request, 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A), subject to nine exemptions, id. § 552(b)(1)-(9)." Newport Aeronautical Sales v. Dep't of Air Force, 684 F.3d 160, 162 (D.C. Cir. 2012). To prevail on summary judgment in a FOIA case, an agency must show that it adequately searched for records responsive to the relevant request and that any records withheld by the agency fall within one of FOIA's statutory exemptions. See id.; Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344, 1351 (D.C. Cir. 1983).

         An agency seeking to satisfy that burden "[t]ypically . . . does so by affidavit." Am. Civil Liberties Union v. U.S. Dep't of Defense, 628 F.3d 612, 619 (D.C. Cir. 2011). "If an agency's affidavit describes the justifications for withholding the information with specific detail, demonstrates that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and is not contradicted by contrary evidence in the record or by evidence of the agency's bad faith, then summary judgment is warranted on the basis of the affidavit alone." Id. Provided that they are accordingly detailed, agency affidavits "cannot be rebutted by 'purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents.'" Mobley v. CIA, 806 F.3d 568, 581 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting SafeCard Servs., Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991)). Indeed, "[t]o successfully challenge an agency's showing that it complied with the FOIA, the plaintiff must come forward with 'specific facts' demonstrating that there is a genuine issue with respect to whether the agency has improperly withheld extant agency records." Span v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 696 F.Supp.2d 113, 119 (D.D.C. 2010).

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff has listed "issues of disputed material facts, " which essentially challenge both the search for responsive records and the withholding of information. Pl.'s Br. Opp'n to Def's Summ. J. Motion ("Pl.'s Opp'n"), Attach. A, Stmt, of Disputed Factual Issues 1 [Dkt. # 21]. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiffs challenges all fail.

         A. The Adequacy of the Search

         To satisfy its obligations under the FOIA, an agency must perform an adequate search for records responsive to the relevant request. Burwell v. Exec. Office for U.S, Atty's,210 F.Supp.3d 33, 36-37 (D.D.C. 2016) (citation omitted). "The adequacy of an agency's search is measured by a standard of reasonableness and is dependent upon the circumstances of the case." Weisberg, 705 F.2d at 1351 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). 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." Ancient Coin Collectors Guildv. U.S. Dep't of State,641 F.3d 504, 514 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). The adequacy of an agency's search "is generally determined not by the fruits of the search, but by the appropriateness of the methods used to carry out the search." Iturralde ...


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