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Chaverra v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 2, 2018




         Jeancarlo Alfonso Jimenez Joseph died last year in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, prompting his family to probe ICE for records that might shed light on the circumstances surrounding his death. Plaintiff Gilberto Rodriguez Chaverra, the administrator of Jimenez's estate, first employed the Freedom of Information Act process. After coming up empty, he next made his request directly to the specific detention center - outside of the procedures afforded by FOIA - but fared no better. Chaverra then filed this suit against ICE, two other governmental entities, and one individual. In addition to FOIA claims, Plaintiff includes a cause of action under the Administrative Procedure Act and a Petition for Writ of Mandamus. These latter two counts are the subject of this litigation's first volley. Defendants seek to dismiss them both, leaving the FOIA counts for another day. Because the law is clear that Plaintiff's opportunity to seek redress through FOIA is an adequate remedy, the Court will grant Defendants' Motion.

         I. Background

         On May 15, 2017, while detained in ICE custody at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, Jimenez died in an apparent suicide. See ECF No. 1 (Compl.) at 2-3. According to the Complaint, Defendant had identified Jimenez as a suicide risk when he first arrived at the facility but nevertheless failed to afford him the necessary mental-health care and intervention. Id. at 2. Instead, Plaintiff says, ICE placed Jimenez in solitary confinement. Id. This unfortunate treatment spurred Jimenez's family - led by Chaverra - to seek more information about the circumstances of his death. Id.

         Chaverra began his quest for information through FOIA. He filed a request with ICE seeking “all records, including medical, pertaining to” Jimenez. Id. at 8. In its final response, ICE withheld all responsive records in full under Exemption 7(A), which protects certain documents compiled for law-enforcement purposes during the pendency of proceedings. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(A). In the event Exemption 7(A)'s protection expires - i.e., the proceedings conclude - ICE reserved the right to assert Exemptions 6, 7(C), 7(D), 7(E), and 7(F). See Compl., Exh. D (ICE FOIA Response) at 1. Chaverra's appeal to the agency of this determination proved unsuccessful. Id, Exh. G (ICE FOIA Appeal Response) at 1.

         Plaintiff next bypassed FOIA's procedures and directly contacted the ICE Health Services Corps at the Stewart Detention Center, from whom he requested the same medical records. Id at 12. This avenue, too, ended in a roadblock: ICE informed Chaverra that it would entertain a request for Jimenez's medical records only via FOIA. Id So Chaverra reverted once again to that process. He filed a number of additional requests seeking a broad range of documents from a variety of governmental entities. Id at 9-12. The Court will save the specifics of these requests for another occasion, when FOIA will take center stage. For now, it suffices to say that Plaintiff's efforts again bore no fruit, ultimately prompting this suit.

         Chaverra filed a seven-count Complaint against ICE, two other offices of the Department of Homeland Security, and Dr. Stewart D. Smith, the administrator who oversees the ICE Health Services Corps. FOIA serves as the cause of action for his first five counts. There, Plaintiff challenges the agencies' withholding of various documents, including Jimenez's medical records from his time in ICE detention, and alleges that Defendants did not adequately respond to Plaintiff's subsequent FOIA requests. In Count VI, Chaverra seeks similar relief through a Petition for Writ of Mandamus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1361. He alleges that the Privacy Rule, 45 C.F.R. §§ 164.502(g), 164.524 - a regulation promulgated pursuant to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) - bestows upon him a clear legal right to Jimenez's medical records. Chaverra thus asks the Court to compel Defendants to turn over these records.

         Plaintiff seeks the same relief in Count VII, but this time under § 706(1) of the APA. Like his mandamus count, Chaverra contends here that ICE has a legal obligation under the Privacy Rule to turn over Jimenez's medical records and explains in his Opposition that Defendant's refusal to do so constitutes agency action contrary to law (although this precise articulation does not appear in his Complaint). See ECF No. 13 (Pl. Opp.) at 21. Chaverra also points to a 2011 ICE guidance document to support his argument: the Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS). Id. at 10-11, 21. This guidance, Plaintiff says, independently entitles him to Jimenez's medical records. He asserts that ICE treats the PBNDS, although promulgated without notice and comment, as binding on the agency. Id. at 10. By declining to provide Jimenez's medical records, therefore, Chaverra contends (also in his Opposition) that ICE's action in “failing to follow its own sub-regulatory guidelines” is arbitrary and capricious. Id at 21.

         Defendants now move to dismiss Counts VI (mandamus) and VII (APA) pursuant to, respectively, Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 12(b)(6). They do not challenge the FOIA claims this time around.

         II. Legal Standard

         In evaluating Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, the Court must “treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant [P]laintiff ‘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) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)) (citation omitted); see also Jerome Stevens Pharm., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1250 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The pleading rules are “not meant to impose a great burden upon a plaintiff, ” Dura Pharm., Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347 (2005), and it must thus be given every favorable inference that may be drawn from the allegations of fact. Sparrow, 216 F.3d at 1113.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of an action where a complaint fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Although “detailed factual allegations” are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citation omitted). The Court need not accept as true, then, “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the Complaint. Trudeau v. Fed. Trade Comm'n, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)) (internal quotation marks omitted). For a plaintiff to survive a 12(b)(6) motion, the facts alleged in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007) (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)).

         The standard to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) is less forgiving. Under this Rule, a plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the Court has subject-matter jurisdiction to hear its claims. See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife,504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992). A court also has an “affirmative obligation to ensure that it is acting within the scope of its jurisdictional authority.” Grand Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police v. Ashcroft185 F.Supp.2d 9, 13 (D.D.C. 2001). For this reason, “‘the [p]laintiff s factual allegations in the complaint . . . will bear closer scrutiny in resolving a 12(b)(1) motion' than in resolving a 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim.” Id. at 13-14 (quoting 5A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1350 (2d ed. 1987) (alteration in original)). Additionally, unlike with a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court “may consider ...

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