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Trautman v. Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 17, 2018

MARYELLEN TRAUTMAN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DABNEY L. FRIEDRICH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Maryellen Trautman and Anthony Clark bring this suit alleging that the Department of Justice and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) unlawfully withheld records in violation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552. Before the Court is the defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. 23. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the motion in part and deny it in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A decade ago, Maryellen Trautman, then a NARA employee, filed a complaint with NARA alleging that the Archivist of the United States, Allen Weinstein, engaged in “inappropriate or improper conduct.” See Simms Decl. ¶ 10, Dkt. 23-2. Trautman's complaint triggered a criminal investigation that started as a joint investigation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Id. ¶ 12. Ultimately, however, no criminal charges were filed. Id.

         On July 8, 2016, Trautman and author Anthony Clark (collectively the “plaintiffs”) submitted joint FOIA requests to NARA and the following Department of Justice components: Office of the Attorney General; Office of the Deputy Attorney General; Office of the Associate Attorney General; FBI; and the Executive Office of United States Attorneys (collectively the “defendants”). See Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 1, 7, 11, 17, Dkt. 23-10. Although varying in scope, the plaintiffs' FOIA requests generally sought agency records relating to the earlier criminal investigation (identified as FBI Case Number 58A-WF-237717). Id.

         On August 11, 2016, the plaintiffs filed a complaint in this Court alleging that the defendants had unlawfully withheld records responsive to the plaintiffs' FOIA requests. Compl. ¶¶ 10, 15, 19, 23, Dkt. 1. That complaint was amended twice.[1] See First Am. Compl., Dkt. 3; Second Am. Compl., Dkt. 5. On November 30, 2016, NARA answered the second amended complaint, but the Department of Justice moved to dismiss all of count one against the offices of the Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, and Associate Attorney General, as well as part of count two against the Executive Office of United States Attorneys. Dep't of Justice's Partial Mot. to Dismiss at 1, Dkt. 11. The Department of Justice argued that dismissal was warranted because the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. Dep't of Justice's Br. in Support of Partial Mot. for Summ. J. at 4, Dkt. 11.

         That same day, the plaintiffs maneuvered to revive their requests for records from the offices of the Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, and Associate Attorney General by submitting three new FOIA requests to the Office of Information Policy. See Castellano Decl. ¶ 10, Dkt. 23-5; Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 11. Also, on December 20, 2016, the plaintiffs submitted a new FOIA request to the Executive Office for United States Attorneys that asked for the same records previously sought in their July 8, 2016 request. See Francis Decl. ¶ 15, Dkt. 23-6. The following day, the parties moved to stay proceedings before this Court pending the plaintiffs' exhaustion of administrative proceedings to address their new FOIA requests. See Joint Mot. to Stay Proceedings, Dkt. 14.

         After the administrative proceedings concluded, the parties returned to this Court. See Joint Status Report ¶ 4, Dkt. 15 (indicating that the plaintiffs administratively exhausted their FOIA claims). On March 17, 2017, the plaintiffs amended their complaint a third time to “replace[] . . . the original FOIA claims with new, properly exhausted FOIA claims.” Joint Status Report, Dkt. 15; see also Third Am. Compl., Dkt. 17. The Department of Justice and NARA answered the amended complaint that same day. See Answer to Third Am. Compl., Dkt. 18. FOIA processing continued and was completed on June 29, 2017. See Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 6 (stating that NARA's Office of the Inspector General provided its final response on that date). The Department of Justice and NARA then moved for summary judgment on October 30, 2017. See Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Dkt. 23. This case was reassigned to the undersigned on December 4, 2017.

         The issues in dispute have narrowed considerably since the inception of this lawsuit and even more so since the defendants filed their motion for summary judgment. At the summary judgment stage, the parties agreed the only remaining dispute was the adequacy of the defendants' searches. See Mem. in Support of Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. at 1, Dkt. 23 (“By agreement of the parties, the only remaining issue to be resolved on summary judgment is the adequacy of defendants' searches for responsive records.”). After the defendants filed their motion for summary judgment, however, the plaintiffs conceded the adequacy of all of the searches conducted by the Department of Justice and NARA's Office of Inspector General. Pls.' Opp'n at 4, Dkt. 24. As a result, the plaintiffs' only remaining challenge is to the searches performed by NARA's Office of General Counsel, Equal Employment Opportunity Office, and Office of Human Capital. Id. at 1.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure mandates that “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment 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). In FOIA litigation, when a federal agency moves for summary judgment all facts and inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the requester, and the agency bears the burden of showing that it complied with FOIA. Chambers v. U.S. Dep't of Interior, 568 F.3d 998, 1003 (D.C. Cir. 2009).

         To prevail under Rule 56, a federal agency “must prove that each document that falls within the class requested either has been produced, is unidentifiable, or is wholly exempt from the (FOIA's) inspection requirements.'” Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 126 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (per curiam) (quoting Nat'l Cable Television Ass'n, Inc. v. F.C.C., 479 F.2d 183, 186 (D.C. Cir. 1973)). The agency “must demonstrate that it conducted a search reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents, ” Weisberg v. Department of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344, 1350-51 (D.C. Cir. 1983) (internal quotation marks omitted), and must also explain in reasonable detail why an exemption applies to any withheld records, Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Food & Drug Admin., 449 F.3d 141, 147 (D.C. Cir. 2006). “The system of disclosure established by the FOIA is simple in theory . . . [a] federal agency must disclose agency records unless they may be withheld pursuant to one of the nine enumerated exemptions listed in [5 U.S.C.] § 552(b).” U.S. Dep't of Justice v. Julian, 486 U.S. 1, 8 (1988).

         “The peculiarities inherent in FOIA litigation, with the responding agencies often in sole possession of requested records and with information searches conducted only by agency personnel, have led federal courts to rely on government affidavits to determine whether the statutory obligations of the FOIA have been met.” Perry, 684 F.2d. at 126. Accordingly, “[i]n FOIA cases, summary judgment may be granted on the basis of agency affidavits if they contain reasonable specificity of detail rather than merely conclusory statements, and if they are not called into question by contradictory evidence in the record or by evidence of agency bad faith.” Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Secret Serv., 726 F.3d 208, 215 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks and alteration marks omitted). In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the agency's affidavit is presumed to have been submitted in good faith. SafeCard Servs., Inc. v. S.E.C., 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         If, on the other hand, “material facts are genuinely in issue or, though undisputed, are susceptible to divergent inferences bearing upon an issue critical to disposition of the case, summary judgment is not available” to the agency. Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. U.S. E.P.A., 856 F.2d 309, 314 (D.C. Cir. 1988). That said, courts in this jurisdiction recognize that “the vast majority of FOIA cases can be ...


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