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National Veterans Legal Services Program v. United States

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 31, 2018

NATIONAL VETERANS LEGAL SERVICES PROGRAM, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ELLEN SEGAL HUVELLE United States District Judge

         The federal judiciary's Public Access to Court Electronic Records (“PACER”) system, which is managed by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (“AO”), provides the public with online access to the electronic records of federal court cases. The fees for using PACER are established by the Judicial Conference of the United States Courts and set forth in the judiciary's Electronic Public Access (“EPA”) Fee Schedule. In this class action, users of the PACER system contend that the fees charged from 2010 to 2016 violated federal law, see 28 U.S.C. § 1913 note (enacted as § 404 of the Judiciary Appropriations Act, 1991, Pub. L. 101-515, 104 Stat. 2101 (Nov. 5, 1990) and amended by § 205(e) of the E-Government Act of 2002, Pub. L. 107-347, 116 Stat. 2899 (Dec. 17, 2002)). Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment as to liability. (See Pls.' Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 52; Def.'s Cross-Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 73.) For the reasons stated herein, the Court will deny plaintiffs' motion and grant in part and deny in part defendant's motion.

         BACKGROUND

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Although the present litigation is a dispute over whether, during the years 2010-2016, the PACER fees charged violated 28 U.S.C. § 1913 note, the relevant facts date back to PACER's creation.[1]

         A. Origins of PACER and the Judiciary's Electronic Public Access (“EPA”) Fee Schedule

         In September 1988, the Judicial Conference “authorized an experimental program of electronic access for the public to court information in one or more district, bankruptcy, or appellate courts in which the experiment can be conducted at nominal cost, and delegated to the Committee [on Judicial Improvements] the authority to establish access fees during the pendency of the program.” (Rep. of Proceedings of the Jud. Conf. of the U.S. (“Jud. Conf. Rep.”) at 83 (Sept. 18, 1988) (emphasis added) (Ex. A to the Decl. of Wendell Skidgel, Nov. 11, 2017, ECF No. 73-2 (“Skidgel Decl.”)); see also Def.'s Statement Facts ¶¶ 1-2, ECF No. 73-3 (“Def.'s Facts”)). The following year, the Federal Judicial Center initiated pilot PACER programs in several bankruptcy and district courts. (See Chronology of the Fed. Judiciary's Elec. Pub. Access (EPA) Program at 1 (“EPA Chronology”) (Ex. C to the Decl. of Jonathan Taylor, Aug. 28, 2017, ECF No. 52-1 (“Taylor Decl.”)).)

         In February 1990, during a hearing on judiciary appropriations for 1991, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations took up the judiciary's “request[] [for] authority to collect fees for access to information obtained through automation.” Dep'ts of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations for 1991: Hearing Before a Subcomm. of the H. Comm. on Appropriations, 101st Cong. 323 (1990) (“1990 Hrg.”). It asked a representative for the judiciary whether there were “any estimates on how much you will collect and will this fee help offset some of your automation costs.” Id. at 324. The response from the judiciary was that “estimates of the revenue that will be generated from these fees are not possible due to the lack of information on the number of attorneys and individuals who have the capability of electronic access, ” but that there “ha[d] been a great deal of interest expressed” and it was “anticipated that the revenue generated will offset a portion of the Judiciary's cost of automation.” Id. The Senate Report on 1991 appropriations bill noted that it “included language which authorizes the Judicial Conference to prescribe reasonable fees for public access to case information, to reimburse the courts for automating the collection of the information.” S. Rep. No. 101-515, at 86 (1990) (“1990 S. Rep.”) (emphasis added).

         In March 1990, “barring congressional objection, ” the Judicial Conference “approved an initial rate schedule for electronic public access to court data [in the district and bankruptcy courts] via the PACER system.” (Jud. Conf. Rep. at 21 (Mar. 13, 1990) (Skidgel Decl. Ex. C); Def.'s Facts ¶ 5.)[2]

         Then, in November 1990, Congress included the following language in the Judiciary Appropriations Act of 1991:

(a) The Judicial Conference shall prescribe reasonable fees, pursuant to sections 1913, 1914, 1926, and 1930 of title 28, United States Code, for collection by the courts under those sections for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment. These fees may distinguish between classes of persons, and shall provide for exempting persons or classes of persons from the fees, in order to avoid unreasonable burdens and to promote public access to such information. The Director, under the direction of the Judicial Conference of the United States, shall prescribe a schedule of reasonable fees for electronic access to information which the Director is required to maintain and make available to the public.
(b) The Judicial Conference and the Director shall transmit each schedule of fees prescribed under paragraph (a) to the Congress at least 30 days before the schedule becomes effective. All fees hereafter collected by the Judiciary under paragraph (a) as a charge for services rendered shall be deposited as offsetting collections to the Judiciary Automation Fund pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 612(c)(1)(A) to reimburse expenses incurred in providing these services.

Pub. L. 101-515, § 404, 104 Stat. 2101 (Nov. 5, 1990) (codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1913 note).[3]Three aspects of this law are relevant to this litigation: (1) the Judicial Conference was given the authority (indeed, it was required) to charge reasonable fees for “access to information available through automatic data processing equipment, ”[4] which covered its newly-developed PACER system; (2) the Director of the AO was required to publish a “schedule of reasonable fees for electronic access to information”; and (3) the fees collected by the judiciary pursuant to that fee schedule were to be deposited in the Judiciary Automation Fund[5] “to reimburse expenses incurred in providing these services.” Id.

         In the summer of 1992, the House Committee on Appropriations issued a report that “note[d] that the Judiciary's investments in automation have resulted in enhanced service to the public and to other Government agencies in making court records relating to litigation available by electronic media” and “request[ed] that the Judiciary equip all courts, as rapidly as is feasible, with the capability for making such records available electronically and for collecting fees for doing so.” H.R. Rep. No. 102-709, at 58 (July 23, 1992) (“1992 H.R. Rep.”) (report accompanying appropriations bill for the judiciary for fiscal year (“FY”) 1993).[6]

         In 1993, the Judicial Conference amended the fee schedules for the Courts of Appeals to include a “fee for usage of electronic access to court data” for “users of PACER and other similar electronic access systems, ” while deciding not to impose fees for another “very different electronic access system” then in use by the appellate courts. (Jud. Conf. Rep. at 44-45 (Sept. 20, 1993) (Skidgel Decl. Ex. D).)[7] In 1994, the Judicial Conference approved a “fee for usage of electronic access to court data” for the Court of Federal Claims. (Jud. Conf. Rep. at 16 (Mar. 15, 1994) (Skidgel Decl. Ex. E).) Finally, in March 1997, it did the same for the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. (Jud. Conf. Rep. at 20 (Mar. 11, 1997)[8]; Def.'s Facts ¶ 13.)

         B. EPA Fees Before the E-Government Act (1993-2002)

         As the Judicial Conference was adding EPA fees to the fee schedules for additional courts, it became apparent that the “income accruing from the fee[s] w[ould] exceed the costs of providing the service.” (Jud. Conf. Rep. at 13-14 (Mar. 14, 1995).) Accordingly, after noting that this revenue “is to be used to support and enhance the electronic public access systems, ” the Judicial Conference reduced the fee from $1.00 to 75 cents per minute in 1995. (Id.) In 1996, after noting that the previous reduction had been “to avoid an ongoing surplus, ” it “reduce[d] the 1992 H.R. Rep. at 58. fee for electronic public access further, ” from 75 to 60 cents per minute. (Jud. Conf. Rep. at 16 (Mar. 13, 1996) (Skidgel Decl. Ex. F); see also EPA Chronology at 1; Def.'s Facts ¶ 14.)

         Shortly after the 1996 fee reduction, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees issued reports that included commentary on the judiciary's EPA fees. The House Report stated:

The Committee supports the ongoing efforts of the Judiciary to improve and expand information made available in electronic form to the public. Accordingly, the Committee expects the Judiciary to utilize available balances derived from electronic public access fees in the Judiciary Automation Fund to make information and services more accessible to the public through improvements to enhance the availability of electronic information. The overall quality of service to the public will be improved with the availability of enhancements such as electronic case documents, electronic filings, enhanced use of the Internet, and electronic bankruptcy noticing.

H.R. Rep. No. 104-676, at 89 (July 16, 1996) (emphasis added) (“1996 H.R. Rep.”). The Senate Report stated that:

The Committee supports efforts of the judiciary to make electronic information available to the public, and expects that available balances from public access fees in the judiciary automation fund will be used to enhance availability of public access.

S. Rep. No. 104-353, at 88 (Aug. 27, 1996) (“1996 S. Rep.”).

         Soon thereafter, “the judiciary started planning for a new e-filing system called ECF [Electronic Case Filing].” (Pls.' Statement Facts ¶ 9, ECF No. 52-16 (“Pls.' Facts”).) In March 1997, the staff of the AO prepared a paper, entitled “Electronic Case Files in the Federal Courts: A Preliminary Examination of Goals, Issues and the Road Ahead, ” “to aid the deliberations of the Judicial Conference in this endeavor, ” which would allow courts to maintain complete electronic case files. (Taylor Decl. Ex. B, at 36 (“1997 AO Paper”).) In discussing how the ECF system could be funded, the paper discussed the possibility of charging a separate fee for ECF, but also opined that “[s]tarting with fiscal year 1997, the judiciary has greater freedom in the use of revenues generated from electronic public access fees” because “the [1996] House and Senate appropriations committee reports . . . include[d] language expressly approving use of these monies for electronic filings, electronic documents, use of the Internet, etc.” (1997 AO Paper at 36; see Pls.' Facts ¶ 9; see also Second Decl. of Wendell Skidgel, March 14, 2018, ECF 81-1 (“2d Skidgel Decl.”), Tab 1 (“FY 2002 Budget Request”) (“Fiscal year 1997 appropriations report language expanded the judiciary's authority to use these funds to finance automation enhancements that improve the availability of electronic information to the public.”).) In the summer of 1998, the Senate Appropriations Committee reiterated its view that it “support[ed] efforts of the judiciary to make information available to the public electronically, and expect[ed] that available balances from public access fees in the judiciary automation fund will be used to enhance the availability of public access.” S. Rep. No. 105-235, at 114 (July 2, 1998) (“1998 S. Rep.”).

         At some point, “a web interface was created for PACER” and the Judicial Conference prescribed the first Internet Fee for Electronic Access to Court Information, charging 7 cents per page “for public users obtaining PACER information through a federal judiciary Internet site.” (Jud. Conf. Rep. at 64 (Sept. 15, 1998) (Skidgel Decl. Ex. G); see EPA Chronology at 1.) The Judicial Conference stated in its report that

The revenue from these fees is used exclusively to fund the full range of electronic public access (EPA) services. With the introduction of Internet technology to the judiciary's current public access program, the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management recommended that a new Internet PACER fee be established to maintain the current public access revenue while introducing new technologies to expand public accessibility to PACER information.

(Jud. Conf. Rep. at 64 (Sept. 15, 1998).)[9]

         In March 2001, the Judicial Conference eliminated the EPA fees from the court-specific miscellaneous fee schedules and replaced them with “an independent miscellaneous EPA fee schedule that would apply to all court types.” (Jud. Conf. Rep. at 12-13 (Mar. 14, 2001) (Skidgel Decl. Ex. H); see also EPA Chronology at 1.) At the same time, it amended the EPA fee schedule to provide: (1) that attorneys of record and parties in a case would receive one free electronic copy of all documents filed electronically, if receipt is required by law or directed by the filer, which could then be printed and saved to the recipient's own computer or network; (2) that no fee is owed by a PACER user until charges of more than $10 in a calendar year are accrued; (3) a new fee of 10 cents per page for printing paper copies of documents through public access terminals at clerks' offices; and (4) a new PACER Service Center search fee of $20.[10] (Jud. Conf. Rep. at 12-13 (Mar. 14, 2001).) In 2002, the Judicial Conference further amended the EPA fee schedule “to cap the charge for accessing any single document via the Internet at the fee for 30 pages.”[11] (Jud. Conf. Rep. at 11 (Mar. 13, 2002) (Skidgel Decl. Ex. I).)

         Starting no later than fiscal year 2000, [12] the judiciary was using its EPA fees to pay for PACER-related costs, CM/ECF-related costs, and Electronic Bankruptcy Noticing (“EBN”).[13](See 2d Skidgel Decl. ¶¶ 31-33 & Tabs 30-32 (“expenditures relating to the Judiciary's Electronic Public Access Program” for FY 2000-2002).)

         C. E-Government Act of 2002

         In December 2002, Congress passed the E-Government Act of 2002. Section 205 pertained to the “Federal Courts. Subsection (a) required all courts to have “individual court websites” containing certain specified information or links to websites that include such information (e.g., courthouse location, contact information, local rules, general orders, docket information for all cases, access to electronically filed documents, written opinions, and any other information useful to the public)”; subsection (b) provided that “[t]he information and rules on each website shall be updated regularly and kept reasonably current; subsection (c), entitled “Electronic Filings, ” provided that, with certain exceptions for sealed documents and privacy and security concerns, “each court shall make any document that is filed electronically publicly available online”; subsection (d), entitled “Dockets with links to documents” provided that “[t]he Judicial Conference of the United States shall explore the feasibility of technology to post online dockets with links allowing all filings, decisions, and rulings in each case to be obtained from the docket sheet of that case”; and subsections (f) and (g) address the time limits for courts to comply with the above requirements. E-Government Act of 2002, § 205(a)-(d), (f), and (g) (codified at 44 U.S.C. § 3501 note). Subsection (e), entitled Cost of Providing Electronic Docketing Information, “amend[ed] existing law regarding the fees that the Judicial Conference prescribes for access to electronic information” by amending the first sentence of 28 U.S.C. § 1913 note to replace the words “shall hereafter” with “may, only to the extent necessary.” E-Government Act of 2002, § 205(e). The E-Government Act left the remainder of 28 U.S.C. § 1913 note unchanged.

         The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Report describes Section 205 as follows:

Section 205 requires federal courts to provide greater access to judicial information over the Internet. Greater access to judicial information enhances opportunities for the public to become educated about their legal system and to research case-law, and it improves access to the court system. The mandates contained in section 205 are not absolute, however. Any court is authorized to defer compliance with the requirements of this section, and the Judicial Conference of the United States is authorized to promulgate rules to protect privacy and security concerns.

S. Rep. No. 107-174, at 23 (June 24, 2002) (“2002 S. Rep.”) (Taylor Decl. Ex. D). As to the amending language in subsection 205(e), the report stated:

The Committee intends to encourage the Judicial Conference to move from a fee structure in which electronic docketing systems are supported primarily by user fees to a fee structure in which this information is freely available to the greatest extent possible. For example, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts operates an electronic public access service, known as PACER, that allows users to obtain case and docket information from Federal Appellate, District and Bankruptcy courts, and from the U.S. Party/Case Index. Pursuant to existing law, users of PACER are charged fees that are higher than the marginal cost of disseminating the information.

2002 S. Rep. at 23.

         D. EPA Fees After the E-Government Act

         1. 2003-2006

         After the passage of the E-Government Act, the judiciary continued to use EPA fees for the development of its CM/ECF system. (See Taylor Decl. Ex. F (FY 2006 Annual Report for the Judiciary Information Technology Fund (“JITF”) (formerly the “Judiciary Automation Fund”)[14] (“The entire development costs for the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) project have been funded solely through EPA collections.”).)

         In 2003, a report from the House Appropriations Committee stated that: “The Committee expects the fee for the Electronic Public Access program to provide for Case Management/Electronic Case Files system enhancements and operational costs.” H.R. Rep.

         No. 108-221, at 116 (July 21, 2003) (“2003 H.R. Rep.”). The Senate Appropriations Committee also expressed its enthusiasm for CM/ECF:

The Committee fully supports the Judiciary's budget request for the Judiciary Information Technology Fund [JITF]. The Committee would like to see an even greater emphasis on automation in the local courts. To this end, the Committee expects the full recommended appropriation for the JITF, as reflected in the budget request, be deposited into this account. The Committee lauds the Judicial Committee on Information Technology (IT Committee) and their Chairman for their successes helping the Courts run more efficiently through the use of new automation. Of particular note, the Committee is impressed and encouraged by the new Case Management/Electronic Case File system [CM/ECF]. This new and innovative system allows judges, their staffs, the bar and the general public to work within the judicial system with greater efficiency. This new system is currently implemented in many bankruptcy and district courts and will soon begin implementation in the appellate courts. The CM/ECF system is already showing its potential to revolutionize the management and handling of case files and within the next few years should show significant cost savings throughout the Judiciary. The Committee on Appropriations expects a report on the savings generated by this program at the earliest possible date.

S. Rep. No. 108-144, at 118 (Sept. 5, 2003) (“2003 S. Rep.”). The associated Conference Committee report “adopt[ed] by reference the House report language concerning Electronic Public Access fees.” See 149 Cong Rec. H12323, at ¶ 12515 (Nov. 23, 2003) (“2003 Conf. Rep.”).

         In September 2004, the Judicial Conference, “[i]n order to provide sufficient revenue to fully fund currently identified case management/electronic case files system costs, ” “increase[d] the fee for public users obtaining information through a federal judiciary Internet site from seven to eight cents per page.” (Jud. Conf. Rep. at 12 (Sept. 21, 2004) (Skidgel Decl. Ex. J); see also EPA Chronology at 2; Taylor Decl. Ex. E (Oct. 21, 2004 AO memorandum) (“This increase is predicated upon Congressional guidance that the judiciary is expected to use PACER fee revenue to fund CM/ECF operations and maintenance. The fee increase will enable the judiciary to continue to fully fund the EPA Program, in addition to CM/ECF implementation costs until the system is fully deployed throughout the judiciary and its currently defined operations and maintenance costs thereafter.”).)

         The judiciary's Financial Plan for fiscal year 2006 described its EPA program at the time:

The judiciary's Electronic Public Access (EPA) program provides for the development, implementation and enhancement of electronic public access systems in the federal judiciary. The EPA program provides centralized billing, registration and technical support services for PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), which facilitates Internet access to data from case files in all court types, in accordance with policies set by the Judicial Conference. The increase in fiscal year 2006 EPA program operations includes one-time costs associated with renegotiation of the Federal Telephone System (FTS) 2001 telecommunications contract.
Pursuant to congressional directives, the program is self-funded and collections are used to fund information technology initiatives in the judiciary related to public access. Fee revenue from electronic access is deposited into the Judiciary Information Technology Fund. Funds are used first to pay the expenses of the PACER program. Funds collected above the level needed for the PACER program are then used to fund other initiatives related to public access. The development and implementation costs for the CM/ECF project have been funded through EPA collections. Beginning last year, in accordance with congressional direction, EPA collections were used to support CM/ECF operations and maintenance as well. In fiscal year 200[6], the judiciary plans to use EPA collections to continue PACER operations, complete CM/ECF development and implementation, and operate and maintain the installed CM/ECF systems in the various courts across the country.

(2d Skidgel Decl. Tab 9 (FY 2006 Financial Plan at 45).)

         2. 2006-2009

         In July 2006, the Senate Appropriations Committee issued a report pertaining to the 2007 appropriations bill in which it stated: “The Committee supports the Federal judiciary sharing its case management electronic case filing system at the State level and urges the judiciary to undertake a study of whether sharing such technology, including electronic billing processes, is a viable option.” S. Rep. No. 109-293, at 176 (July 26, 2006) (“2006 S. Rep.”) (2d Skidgel Decl. Tab 38).

         By the end of 2006, “resulting from unanticipated revenue growth associated with public requests for case information, ” the judiciary found that its EPA fees fully covered the costs of its “EPA Program” and left it with an “unobligated balance” of $32.2 million from EPA fees in the JITF. (FY 2006 JITF Annual Rep. at 8; Pls.' Facts ¶ 16.) In light of this “unobligated balance, ” the judiciary reported that it was “examining expanded use of the fee revenue in accordance with the authorizing legislation.” (FY 2006 JITF Annual Rep. at 8.)

         In March 2007, the judiciary submitted its financial plan for fiscal year 2007 to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 27.) In the section of the plan that covered the JITF, it proposed using EPA fees “first to pay the expenses of the PACER program” and then “to fund other initiatives related to public access.” (Skidgel Decl. Ex. K (FY 2007 Financial Plan at 45).) It identified the “public access initiatives” that it planned to fund with EPA fees as CM/ECF Infrastructure and Allotments; EBN; Internet Gateways; and Courtroom Technology Allotments for Maintenance/Technology Refreshment. (Id.) With respect to Courtroom Technology, the plan requested “expanded authority” to use EPA fees for that purpose:

Via this financial plan submission, the Judiciary seeks authority to expand use of Electronic Public Access (EPA) receipts to support courtroom technology allotments for installation, cyclical replacement of equipment, and infrastructure maintenance. The Judiciary seeks this expanded authority as an appropriate use of EPA receipts to improve the ability to share case evidence with the public in the courtroom during proceedings and to share case evidence electronically ...

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