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Sandoval v. U.S. Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 27, 2018

HECTOR SANDOVAL, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Federal Inmate Hector Sandoval filed Freedom of Information Act requests with several law enforcement agencies seeking documents he believes would assist in proving his innocence. After the agencies processed the requests, Sandoval filed suit. He claims that the agencies failed to produce all the records he sought and to correct allegedly inaccurate records in their possession. The agencies have now moved for dismissal or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The Court will grant summary judgment for the agencies.

         I. Factual Background

         In 2002, Mr. Sandoval was convicted by a jury of kidnapping and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a violent crime. See Sandoval v. United States, 2007 WL 2937124, at *1 (C.D. Ill. Sept. 26, 2007), aff'd, 574 F.3d 847 (7th Cir. 2007). On February 28, 2016, he submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) to three agencies-the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”), and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of Illinois (“U.S. Attorney's Office”)-seeking records and documents related to his criminal investigation and prosecution. See Compl. ¶¶ 12-14. Sandoval believed these documents would prove his innocence in his criminal case. Id. Sandoval also submitted a Privacy Act request to the same agencies, requesting that any records the agencies maintained be corrected to reflect Sandoval's alleged innocence of his convicted conduct. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (“Defs.' MTD”) at 20.

         The FBI responded to Sandoval's requests in April 2016, notifying him that its search of the Central Records System had not uncovered any responsive records. Defs.' MTD, Declaration of David M. Hardy (“Hardy Decl.”), at 16-17. The BOP, meanwhile, informed Sandoval in September 2016 that its search yielded only Sandoval's presentence report, which Sandoval could review under supervision at the correctional center. Id., Declaration of Ronald L. Rodgers (“Rodgers Decl.”), at 9. And for its part, the U.S. Attorney's Office advised Sandoval in June 2016 that its search had come up empty. Defs.' MTD, Declaration of Princina Stone (“Stone Decl.”) at 18. Sandoval did not administratively appeal the FBI and BOP responses. See Hardy Decl. at 5; Rodgers Decl. at 13. He did, however, appeal the U.S. Attorney's Office's response, which was affirmed. See Stone Decl. at 24.

         In March 2017, Sandoval, proceeding pro se, filed suit against the three agencies in relation to his request. He also named as defendants the Department of Justice and the Executive Office of the United States Attorneys (“EOUSA”), the DOJ liaison office to the various United States Attorney's offices nationwide. His complaint alleges that the agencies failed to produce responsive records under FOIA and the Privacy Act and failed to correct the records as the Privacy Act requires. Sandoval also sought damages related to the agencies' alleged misconduct in maintaining inaccurate records and “framing Sandoval for the crimes he never committed.” Compl. at 27. After the complaint was filed, the U.S. Attorney's Office modified its search and provided Sandoval with 101 responsive pages in August 2017, one page more than the maximum Sandoval could receive without incurring additional fees, which he declined to do. Stone Decl. at 4-5. The government thereafter filed a motion for dismissal or, alternatively, summary judgment. Sandoval filed an opposition, and the motion is now ripe for resolution.

         II. Legal Standard

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss under either Rule 12(b)(1) or 12(b)(6), a court must “treat a complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant a plaintiff ‘the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'” Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (internal citations omitted), quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979); see also Am. Nat'l Ins. Co. v. FDIC, 642 F.3d 1137, 1139 (D.C. Cir. 2011). Nevertheless, a court need not accept inferences drawn by the plaintiff that are unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint, nor must the court accept a plaintiff's legal conclusions. Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). When reviewing a challenge pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), the court may consider documents outside the pleadings to assure itself that it has jurisdiction. See Land v. Dollar, 330 U.S. 731, 735 n. 4 (1947); Haase v. Sessions, 835 F.2d 902, 906 (D.C. Cir. 1987). In contrast, a court may ordinarily consider only “the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached as exhibits or incorporated by reference in the complaint and matters about which the Court may take judicial notice.” Gustave-Schmidt v. Chao, 226 F.Supp.2d 191, 196 (D.D.C. 2002).

         B. Motion for Summary Judgment

         In a FOIA case, a district court reviews the agency's decisions de novo and “the burden is on the agency to sustain its action.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). “[T]he vast majority of FOIA cases can be resolved on summary judgment.” Brayton v. Office of U.S. Trade Rep., 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011). Summary judgment is appropriate “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 cases, “[s]ummary judgment may be granted on the basis of agency affidavits” when those affidavits “contain reasonable specificity of detail rather than merely conclusory statements” and when “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), quoting Consumer Fed'n of Am. v. Dep't of Agric., 455 F.3d 283, 287 (D.C. Cir. 2006). However, a plaintiff cannot rebut the good-faith presumption afforded to an agency's supporting affidavits through “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). Similarly, in a Privacy Act case, the court may rely on agency affidavits or declarations to enter summary judgment. See Chambers v. U.S. Dep't of the Interior, 568 F.3d 998, 1003 (D.C. Cir. 2009).

         III. Analysis

         A. Plaintiff's FOIA and Privacy Act Claims ...


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