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Linder v. Executive Office for United States Attorneys

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 11, 2018

DAVID W. LINDER, Plaintiff,
v.
EXECUTIVE OFFICE FOR UNITED STATES ATTORNEYS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TREVOR N. MCFADDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff David W. Linder, appearing pro se, filed this action under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) to compel the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (“EOUSA”) to produce the “evidence book, ” which he characterizes as “essentially trial exhibits” used during his criminal trial. Compl. 1, 3. Mr. Linder's subsequent filings reiterate his focus on “the evidence book.” See Traverse to Gov't Return, ECF No. 13; Pl.'s Mot. for Summary J. on the Pleadings, ECF No. 17. The EOUSA filed a motion for partial summary judgment that goes well beyond the scope of Mr. Linder's claim. See Def.'s Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. for Partial Summary J. (“Def.'s Mot. for Summary J.”), ECF No. 21 (seeking judgment on all but one of 12 FOIA requests submitted between 2014 and 2017).[1]Because the agency's affidavits do not sufficiently explain the adequacy of the search methodology or why the exemptions claimed are proper, the Court will hold the EOUSA's motion in abeyance pending more fulsome explanation. Mr. Linder's pending “Motion for Summary Judgment on the Pleadings, ” ECF No. 17, will be denied as moot given the Court's reliance on the summary judgment record. See Langley v. Napolitano, 677 F.Supp.2d 261, 263 (D.D.C. 2010) (noting that “the standards for review are the same” on a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) and on motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)); Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d) (requiring summary judgment analysis when “matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court”).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A federal jury in the Eastern District of Virginia convicted Mr. Linder “of all twenty-seven counts of the indictment against him, ” consisting of various drug distribution offenses and related charges. United States v. Linder, 200 Fed. App'x 186, 187 (4th Cir. 2006). Mr. Linder's conviction and sentence, including a life sentence on a drug conspiracy count, were affirmed. Id.

         Between 2014 or earlier and 2017, Mr. Linder submitted dozens of FOIA requests to the EOUSA for various records pertaining to his and others' criminal prosecutions. See Def.'s SOMF ¶¶ 1-98.[2] His current complaint does not reference any request number(s) in particular, but describes his action as seeking “essentially trial exhibits, ” which he believes is contained within an “evidence book, ” and includes “a number of PowerPoints, CV's and of great interest, a photocopy of Ex 800, an Express Envelope, alleged to have carried substances from Nevada to New York.” Compl. 1, 3. He also believes that he previously paid $70 for the duplication of these requested documents. Id. at 1-2.

         Of the requests described in the EOUSA's motion and accompanying affidavit, two pertain to an “evidence book.” Request 2014-03816, submitted by letter on July 28, 2014, sought “the cost to copy the evidence book with all of the entered exhibits.” Decl. of Tricia Francis (“Francis Decl.”) Ex. G, ECF No. 21-3; see also id. ¶ 17. On September 10, 2014, the EOUSA informed Mr. Linder that a search of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia “revealed no responsive records.” Id. Ex. I; see also Id. ¶ 21.

         Request 2015-02765, submitted by letter on May 7, 2015, requested the “Evidence Book” which he stated to be “[a]pproximately 120 pages.” Id. Ex. X, ECF No. 21-4; see also id. ¶ 51. On September 3, 2015, the EOUSA informed Mr. Linder that the Eastern District of Virginia “estimate approximately 1, 500 pages of potentially responsive records have been located” but as the search was ongoing, they did not know “how many total responsive pages would be found.” Id. Ex. Z; see also Id. ¶ 54. The EOUSA estimated the duplication cost for the 1, 500 pages to be $70, and asked Mr. Linder to agree to pay the fee or select another option set out in the letter. Id. Ex. Z. By a form signed on September 10, 2015, Mr. Linder requested that the search be discontinued, the first 100 pages be released, and the request be closed. Id. Ex. AA.

         Mr. Linder filed his complaint on October 12, 2016.[3] On February 13, 2017, during the course of this litigation, the EOUSA informed Mr. Linder that his request number 2015-02765 had been processed and released in full 453 of 502 responsive pages. It released the remaining 49 pages in part, withholding information under FOIA exemptions 6 and 7(C). Traverse to Resp't's Opp. to Pl.'s Mot. for Summary J. 21, ECF No. 30; see also Francis Decl. ¶ 57. On April 10, 2017, EOUSA received a letter from Mr. Linder, stating: “The release looks to be the first half. When can I expect the second half of the evidence?” Id. Ex. BB, ECF No. 21-4; see also Id. ¶ 58. The record contains no reply to Mr. Linder's inquiry.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         FOIA requires federal agencies to “disclose information to the public upon reasonable request unless the records at issue fall within specifically delineated exemptions.” Judicial Watch, Inc. v. FBI, 522 F.3d 364, 365-66 (D.C. Cir. 2008); see also 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A) (records sought must be “reasonably describe[d]”). In FOIA cases, the district court reviews the record de novo, 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B), and views the facts and draws all inferences “in the light most favorable to the requester.” Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984).

         The “vast majority” of FOIA cases can be decided on motions for summary judgment. See Brayton v. Office of U.S. Trade Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011). To prevail on summary judgment, the movant must show an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). This means that an agency must demonstrate that no material facts are in dispute, that it has conducted an adequate search for responsive records, and that each responsive record has either been produced to the requestor or is exempt from disclosure. See Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 627 F.2d 365, 368 (D.C. Cir. 1980). To demonstrate an adequate search, an agency can submit a “reasonably detailed affidavit, setting forth the search terms and the type of search performed, and averring that all files likely to contain responsive materials (if such records exist) were searched.” Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990). Although agency declarations are given “a presumption of good faith, ” SafeCard Servs. Inc. v. S.E.C., 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991), they must also describe the agency's search with “specificity.” Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press & Assoc. Press v. FBI, 877 F.3d 399, 403 (D.C. Cir. 2017).

         Agencies also have the burden of demonstrating that the withheld document falls into one of the enumerated exemptions. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); see also Natural Res. Defense Council, Inc. v. Nuclear Regulatory Comm'n, 216 F.3d 1180, 1190 (D.C. Cir. 2000). This includes providing a sufficiently detailed description of the exemption, the portion(s) of documents to which it applies, and justification as to why the exemption is relevant, such that the district court can conduct a de novo review of the agency's determination. See Church of Scientology of Cal, Inc. v. Turner, 662 F.2d 784, 786 (D.C. Cir. 1980); Mead Data Cent., Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of the Air Force, 566 F.2d 242, 251 (D.C Cir. 1977). In summary:

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 ...

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