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Frank LLP v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 4, 2018

FRANK LLP, Plaintiff,
v.
CONSUMER FINANCIAL PROTECTION BUREAU, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DABNEY L. FRIEDRICH UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Since its inception in February 2016, this FOIA dispute has dwindled to a single issue: whether the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau appropriately withheld portions of two investigational hearing transcripts under 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(E). Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of the CFPB.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         In February 2016, Frank LLP (Frank) submitted a FOIA request to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) seeking documents related to the CFPB's enforcement action against-and eventual consent order with-Portfolio Recovery Associates (PRA). Lazier Decl. ¶ 5, Dkt. 16-3. Frank represents plaintiffs in a lawsuit against PRA and believes that “[r]ecords and information in the CFPB's possession that pertain to the CFPB's findings against PRA and its attorneys constitute evidence that would greatly strengthen the claims of the plaintiffs and putative class” in that lawsuit. Pl.'s Opp'n & Cross-Mot., Dkt. 20 at 3. After submitting its request, Frank entered into a series of back-and-forths with the CFPB that included various administrative denials, appeals, and-after Frank filed suit-productions. See Lazier Decl. ¶¶ 5-21, Dkt. 16-3 (describing the process). The final production included redacted versions of two investigational hearing transcripts from the CFPB's interviews of two PRA employees. Id. ¶ 21; see also Pl.'s Opp'n & Cross-Mot., Dkt. 20 at 7. The CFPB invoked exemption 7(E) as the basis for the redactions. Pl.'s Opp'n & Cross-Mot., Dkt. 20 at 7; see also 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(E).

         In June 2017, the parties filed a joint status report indicating that they had “narrowed the known issues in this matter to redactions within [the] two transcripts.” Dkt. 14 at 1. The Court ordered briefing, Dkt. 15, and the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, Dkts. 16, 20, 21. The case was reassigned to the undersigned judge on December 4, 2017.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         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 [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 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).

         “[T]he vast majority of FOIA cases can be resolved on summary judgment.” Brayton v. Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011). That is in part because “[t]he 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 quotations and alterations 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).

         Here, the CFPB has withheld portions of two investigational hearing transcripts and invoked exemption 7(E). That exemption allows agencies to withhold

records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information . . . would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.

5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(E). The parties dispute whether the withheld materials qualify under this exemption.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Frank does not appear to dispute, and the Court has little trouble concluding, that the investigational hearing transcripts at issue were “compiled for law enforcement purposes.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7). An agency satisfies this requirement when it “establish[es] a rational nexus between [an] investigation and one of the agency's law enforcement duties and a connection between an individual or incident and a possible security risk or violation of federal law.” Blackwell v. FBI, 646 F.3d 37, 40 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting Campbell v. Dep't of Justice, 164 F.3d 20, 32 (D.C. Cir. 1998)). “[L]aw enforcement purposes” include both civil and criminal matters. Tax Analysts v. IRS, 294 F.3d 71, 77 (D.C. Cir. 2002). As the CFPB notes, “the very fact that the two transcripts are responsive to Frank LLP's FOIA request demonstrates that the transcripts were compiled for law enforcement purposes” because Frank “sought documents that the ...


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