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Kearns v. Federal Aviation Administration

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 15, 2018

KEVIN KEARNS, Plaintiff,
v.
FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Since 2012, Plaintiff Kevin Kearns has been the subject of a number of complaints regarding his conduct at the Federal Aviation Administration. Concerned that such allegations would stymie his future career prospects, Kearns sought documents under the Freedom of Information Act relating to his tenure at the FAA. Filing his first FOIA request in July 2015, followed by a FOIA and Privacy Act request in November 2015, and a third under both statutes in 2016, Kearns sought various agency files and reports he asserts may contain false information. In response, the agency provided Plaintiff with an Accountability Board case report and with two Reports of Investigation and related attachments. These documents detail a series of inquiries into Kearns's conduct at the FAA, including allegations that he had discriminated on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.

         The case reports and investigation files were not, however, provided in full. Instead, the agency redacted certain portions of the reports and withheld pages from the files, claiming that FOIA Exemptions 5, 6, and 7(C) protected such information from disclosure. Plaintiff disagreed with this determination and filed the instant lawsuit to challenge these withholdings and the FAA's decision to not process his July 2015 request under the Privacy Act. Both sides have now moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims. Finding that the disclosure requirements of the Privacy Act do not apply to the documents released in this case and that the agency correctly applied the various FOIA exemptions, the Court will grant Defendant's Motion.

         I. Background

         Kevin Kearns has worked in the FAA's Drug Abatement Division since 2003. See Compl., ¶ 2. The Division falls under the Office of Aerospace Medicine, which overseas compliance with federal law governing drug and alcohol testing. See Def. Statement of Undisputed Material Fact, ¶ 1. Kearns is stationed at the FAA's regional office near Los Angeles. Beginning in 2012, Plaintiff was the subject of several complaints by other FAA employees working in this location. Id., ¶ 2. Believing that these allegations might impede his ability to obtain employment with other federal agencies, Kearns sought to obtain records related to the complaints. See Compl., ¶¶ 6-7.

         His quest to unearth records regarding the complaints began on July 4, 2015, when he submitted a FOIA request to the FAA seeking a “copy of Accountability Board case number 2012-0155.” SUMF, ¶ 4. Five days later, the FAA acknowledged receipt of Plaintiff's request and designated it as “FOIA 2015-007559.” Id., ¶ 6. At the end of that month, on July 31, the FAA responded to the request and provided Kearns with a copy of the case report for Accountability Board case number 2012-0155. Id., ¶ 8. Although the agency gave Plaintiff the case report, which addressed claims that he had discriminated on the basis of gender and sexual orientation and had created a hostile work environment, it redacted the names of individuals and facilities associated with the allegations. Id.; see ECF No. 20 (FOIA Response). In its response letter accompanying the release of the report, the FAA stated that it had redacted such information in accordance with FOIA's Exemption 6, which permits agencies to withhold information that pertains to an individual “the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). As the agency explained, “[S]ince the redacted information involves the possible violations of FAA rules and regulations, the individuals referenced have a significant privacy interest in not having their identities disclosed.” Compl., Exh. 2 (FAA Response Letter, July 31, 2015). The FAA stated that it therefore withheld “not only their names but also information that would permit identification of their duty location.” Id.

         On August 27, 2015, Kearns appealed the FAA's response. He argued that only the names of the associated individuals should have been redacted from the case report and that he had been deprived of additional records in the Accountability Board file. See Compl., Exh. 3 (Appeal of FOIA 2015-007559). On October 30, the FAA denied the appeal. Id., Exh. 4 (Denial Letter). The agency upheld the withholdings under FOIA Exemption 6, stating that “[t]he redactions consist of information that might identify the individuals and information of a highly personal nature.” Id. The FAA also told Kearns that the redacted information additionally qualified for withholding under Exemption 7(C), which protects against the unwarranted invasion of personal privacy through the disclosure of law-enforcement information. Id. Finally, the denial letter stated that the “most reasonable interpretation” of the FOIA request was that Kearns was “asking for a copy of the Accountability Board Case Report, ” and that if he wished to receive additional records, he could “submit a new initial FOIA request.” Id.

         Not wasting any time, Plaintiff one week later took the FAA up on this suggestion. He submitted a new, follow-up request - this time seeking a “copy of the entire Accountability Board case file 2012-0155, including any signed statement and other records and reports” under both FOIA and the Privacy Act. See SUMF, ¶ 12; Compl., Exh. 5 (Privacy Act Request) at 5. On December 23, the FAA responded by stating that the “complete Accountability Board Case Number 2012-0155 was sent to you under FOIA request number 2015-007559” and that “no additional documents” were available from the Board under that case number. See Compl., Exh. 5 (Letter Denying Privacy Act Request, Dec. 23, 2015). Plaintiff never filed an appeal of this determination. See SUMF, ¶ 14; Declaration of Laurie Karnay, ¶ 9.

         Nearly a year later, Kearns submitted a new FOIA and Privacy Act request. On September 16, 2016, he asked the FAA for “a complete copy of internal security investigation file number AHW20140239 and AHW20150097, including all documents and statements gathered as part of each investigation.” Compl., Exh. 6 (2016 FOIA and Privacy Act Request). On September 21, the FAA acknowledged the request and designated it with the reference number “FOIA 2016-009336.” SUMF, ¶ 23. One month later, the agency issued its substantive response, which consisted of releasing to Plaintiff the Reports of Investigation (ROI) and attachments for both requested security investigations. See Compl., Exh. 8 (Oct. 24, 2016, Response). In its letter, the FAA stated that 1, 537 pages were found responsive to Kearns's request and that, out of that number, “333 pages have redactions and 797 pages are being withheld in their entirety under FOIA Exemption 6 because [they] have third-party information not applicable to [Kearns] and the release would be an invasion of [] personal privacy.” Id. The rest, the agency determined, could be released to Kearns on a compact disc. Id.

         On November 3, 2016, Plaintiff appealed this response, asserting that the agency had inappropriately relied upon FOIA exemptions in redacting the withheld information. See Compl., Exh. 9 (Appeal of 2016 Request). According to Kearns, the agency had erred in citing FOIA Exemption 6, as under the Privacy Act that exemption could “not be invoked to withhold from a requester information pertaining to himself.” Id. at 2.

         Four months after filing his appeal, Kearns initiated this lawsuit. On March 10, 2017, he filed a Complaint alleging that the FAA had not adequately responded to his 2015 and 2016 FOIA and Privacy Act requests. See ECF No. 1. With respect to the 2015 one, Kearns alleged that the Agency had erred when it did not consider his request under both FOIA and the Privacy Act and when it determined that he was asking only for the Case Report, rather than the “entire case file.” Id., ¶¶ 41-52. With respect to the 2016 request, he claimed that Defendant had improperly withheld “documents that pertained to him” from the investigation files, in violation of the disclosure requirements of the Privacy Act, and that the agency had improperly applied certain FOIA exemptions. Id., ¶¶ 53-63. As relief for these alleged statutory violations, Kearns asked the Court to, inter alia, “[o]rder [the] FAA to process” his 2015 request “under both FOIA and the [Privacy Act], ” order the agency to “release all non-exempt, responsive records to [the 2016 FOIA request] . . . under FOIA or the [Privacy Act], whichever compels the greatest degree of disclosure, ” and to “[o]rder the FAA to expunge all inaccurate and/or unsubstantiated information relating to Plaintiff from his employment file, and from any system of records which is or may be shared with other agencies or employers in the even that [he] seeks employment elsewhere.” Compl. at 9-10.

         Subsequent to the filing of this suit, the FAA undertook a further review of its response to Kearns's 2016 request for the security-investigation files. See SUMF, ¶ 29. Following this review, the agency released previously redacted information related to file AHW20150091 on June 20, 2017, and related to file AHW20140239 on July 12, 2017. Id., ¶¶ 30-31. On September 21, 2017, the FAA moved for summary judgment. See ECF No. 12-1 (Def. MSJ). Plaintiff opposed this motion and filed his own Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. See ECF No. 13-1 (Pl. Opp). After both sides filed their respective replies, see ECF Nos. 18 (Def. Reply), 20 (Pl. Reply), the Court ordered Defendant to produce for in camera inspection “all challenged documents withheld in full or in part.” Minute Order of March 13, 2018. The agency promptly did so, and the Court has now reviewed them.

         II. 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 genuine issue of material fact is one that would change the outcome of the litigation. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (“Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.”). 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). Factual assertions in the moving party's affidavits or declarations may be accepted as true unless the opposing party submits his own affidavits, declarations, or documentary evidence to the contrary. Neal v. Kelly, 963 F.2d 453, 456 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

         FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment. See Defenders of Wildlife v. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009); Bigwood v. U.S. Agency for Int'l Dev., 484 F.Supp.2d 68, 73 (D.D.C. 2007). In FOIA cases, the agency bears the ultimate burden of proof. See U.S. Dep't of Justice v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 142, n.3 (1989). The Court may grant summary judgment based solely on information provided in an agency's affidavits or declarations when they describe “the documents and 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.” Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Such affidavits or declarations 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) (quoting Ground Saucer Watch, Inc. v. CIA, 692 F.2d 770, 771 (D.C. Cir. 1981)).

         III. ...


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