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American Oversight v. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 2, 2018

AMERICAN OVERSIGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          BERYL A. HOWELL CHIEF JUDGE.

         Pending before this Court is the defendants' Motion to Sever Claims pertaining to eighteen Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests, which all seek virtually the same, straightforward, basic information from seventeen defendant federal agencies about the political appointees entering the Trump Administration. See Defs.' Mot. Sever Claims and Stay Defs.' Resp. to Compl. (“Defs.' Mot.”) at 1, 3, ECF No. 8.[1] These FOIA requests were all submitted by the same plaintiff, American Oversight, “a nonpartisan, non-profit section 501(c)(3) organization primarily engaged in disseminating information to the public, ” with one request filed on March 8, 2017, sixteen requests filed on the same date eight months later on November 28, 2017, and the final request filed on December 18, 2018. Compl. ¶¶ 5-24, ECF No. 1.[2] Each request asks for basic information about political appointees joining the Trump Administration, including names, position titles, resumes, and conflicts or ethics information. Id. Despite the fact that one of these requests has been pending for over one year and the others for at least five months, the defendants have failed to respond to the requests, which could shed valuable light on the qualifications and backgrounds of government officials in the current Administration.

         The defendants argue in their pending Motion that the plaintiff has “impermissibly joined” the claims against the agencies in this case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20, as “[t]he Complaint does not allege any concerted action by these separate agencies in responding to the requests.” Defs.' Mot. at 1; see Fed. R. Civ. P. 20(a)(2). Further, the defendants contend that, “even if the requirements of Rule 20 are satisfied, ” severance is warranted under Rule 21 to “promote efficiency.” Defs.' Mot. at 9; see Fed. R. Civ. P. 21. The defendants are wrong, as explained more fully below, and their Motion to Sever Claims is DENIED.[3]

         I. BACKGROUND

         The “FOIA's prodisclosure purpose, ” Nat'l Archives & Records Admin. v. Favish, 541 U.S. 157, 174 (2004), ensures “a means for citizens to know ‘what the Government is up to, '” id. at 171 (quoting U.S. Dep't of Justice v. Reporters Comm. For Freedom of Press, 489 U.S. 773, 749 (1989)). “This phrase should not be dismissed as a convenient formalism. It defines a structural necessity in a real democracy.” Id. at 171-72. To “reveal who is doing the political work at federal agencies under the Trump Administration, what their qualifications are, and what they have been authorized to work on, ” Pl.'s Mem. Opp'n Defs.' Mot. Sever Claims and Stay Defs.' Resp. to Compl. (“Pl.'s Opp'n”) at 3, ECF No. 9, the plaintiff submitted FOIA requests to the seventeen defendants seeking:

1) the names and position titles of any employees in a PAS, presidentially appointed, non-career SES, Schedule C, or any ‘political appointee' position; 2) the names and any position titles of all career employees detailed into a leadership office or component; 3) the names and position titles of anyone on the beachhead teams, or with a temporary or provisional appointment who assumed a full-time permanent position; 4) any resumes, conflicts or ethics waivers or authorizations, recusal determinations, and SF-50 forms for all individuals identified in response to parts 1 to 3 of the requests.

Compl. ¶ 24.[4]

         The plaintiff's requests submitted in November and December were a “second round” of FOIA requests, Pl.'s Opp'n at 3, since earlier FOIA requests for essentially the same information that had been submitted to many of the same agencies had already resulted in the disclosure of the names and qualifications of the political appointees for earlier date ranges. See Compl. ¶ 25 (noting that “[m]any of these FOIA requests were follow-up requests to a series of requests submitted by [the plaintiff] earlier in the Trump Administration, ” but the “date range of the records sought in these requests varied based on the date range covered by the records produced in response to that first round of requests”); Pl.'s Opp'n at 1 (noting that, after filing an earlier lawsuit, eight agencies produced records in response to the plaintiff's first round of “baseline” requests, resulting in a voluntarily dismissal of the suit (citing Joint Stipulation of Voluntary Dismissal, Am. Oversight v. Dep't of the Interior, Civ. No. 17-958 (RBW) (D.D.C. Oct. 5, 2017), ECF No. 12)).

         The plaintiff filed the instant lawsuit on March 22, 2018, alleging that the defendants failed to comply with the applicable time-limit provisions for FOIA relating to these requests. Compl. ¶ 4. According to the plaintiff, most defendants have only assigned a tracking number to the request and otherwise not responded, with a few defendants seeking clarification or responding to certain distinct aspects. Compl. ¶¶ 26-57. Although the defendants' Answer to the Complaint was due on May 9, 2018, the defendants instead filed the pending Motion to Sever Claims on May 8, 2018. Defs.' Mot. at 3. With the parties' consent, the Court stayed the defendants' response to the Complaint until resolution of this pending Motion. Min. Order (dated May 9, 2018).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20 provides that “[p]ersons . . . may be joined in one action as defendants if” two criteria are satisfied. Fed.R.Civ.P. 20(a)(2). First, “any right to relief is asserted against them jointly, severally, or in the alternative with respect to or arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 20(a)(2)(A). Second, “any question of law or fact common to all defendants will arise in the action.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 20(a)(2)(B).

         To satisfy the first requirement, claims against multiple defendants must have a “logical relationship.” Moore v. New York Cotton Exch., 270 U.S. 593, 610 (1926); Martinez v. Dep't of Justice, 324 F.R.D. 33, 36 (D.D.C. 2018). “The logical relationship test is flexible because ‘the impulse is toward entertaining the broadest possible scope of action consistent with fairness to the parties; joinder of claims, parties and remedies is strongly encouraged.'” Disparte v. Corp. Exec. Bd., 223 F.R.D. 7, 10 (D.D.C. 2004) (quoting United Mine Workers of Am. v. Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715, 724 (1966)). The second requirement of Rule 20(a)(2) permits joinder where “at least one issue of law or fact will generally be common to all defendants.” AF Holdings, LLC v. Does 1-1058, 752 F.3d 990, 997 (D.C. Cir. 2014).

         The Rules further provide that “the court may . . . on just terms, add or drop a party.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 21. Although Rule 21 deals primarily with misjoinder or nonjoinder of parties, this Rule also “authorizes the severance of any claim, even without a finding of improper joinder, where there are sufficient other reasons for ordering a severance.” Wyndham Assocs. v. Bintliff, 398 F.2d 614, 618 (2d Cir. 1968); see also Applewhite v. Reichhold Chems., Inc., 67 F.3d 571, 574 (5th Cir. 1995) (holding that Rule 21 gives the court “discretion to sever an action if it . . . might otherwise cause delay or prejudice”); Otis Clapp & Son, Inc. v. Filmore Vitamin Co., 754 F.2d 738, 743 (7th Cir. 1985) (“Rule 21 gives the court discretion to sever any claim and proceed with it separately if doing so will increase judicial economy and avoid prejudice to the litigants.” (quoting 6 Wright & Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1591, at 823)).

         III. ...


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