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Powell v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 4, 2018




         In this latest of his multiple suits, pro se Plaintiff William E. Powell seeks relief for Defendant Social Security Administration's alleged failure to disclose records pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act. Defendant now moves to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Specifically, SSA contends that Powell never administratively appealed the denial of his FOIA request and did not submit a proper Privacy Act request. Agreeing, the Court will grant summary judgment for Defendant on the FOIA claim and dismiss the Privacy Act claim without prejudice.

         I. Background

         On several prior occasions, this Court has evaluated records requests in Plaintiff's “long quest to obtain tax information related to his late father and grandfather, their trusts and estates, and two family printing businesses.” Powell v. IRS, 317 F.Supp.3d 266, 270 (D.D.C. 2018). This time around, Powell's requests seek Social Security records related to himself, see ECF No. 1 (Compl.), Exh. A (Privacy Act Request) at 1, as well as to his mother, father, and grandfather. Id., Exh. B (FOIA Request) at 1-2. The requests seek records from three systems: the Earnings Record and Self-Employment Income System, the Master Files of Social Security Number Holders and SSN Applications, and the Master Beneficiary Record. See Privacy Act Request at 1; FOIA Request at 1; ECF No. 9 (Def Mot.), Attach. 1 (Def SUMF), ¶ 6(a); see also Powell v. IRS, 255 F.Supp.3d 33, 41 (D.D.C. 2017) (describing systems of records under Privacy Act). The central dispute here revolves around communications between the parties about the requests. Facts regarding each are summarized in turn.

         A. FOIA Request

         The parties agree that on March 5, 2018, Plaintiff submitted a FOIA request through FOIA online, a “multi-agency web-application that enables the public to submit FOIA requests to participating agencies, tracks the progress of an agency's response to a request, searches information previously made available, and generates up-to-the-minute reports on FOIA processing.” Def. SUMF, ¶ 1 & n.1; Compl. at 2. Powell claims that he included certain identifying documents with the request, including his driver's license and death certificates showing the Social Security numbers of his mother, father, and grandfather. See ECF No. 16 (Pl. Mot.), Attach. 1 (Surreply) at 2; id, Attach. 3 (Identifying Documents); FOIA Request at 2. According to Powell, “Defendant ha[d] not processed” the request when he filed the Complaint in this case on April 6, 2018. See Compl. at 2.

         Defendant, conversely, contends that its Office of Privacy and Disclosure acknowledged receipt of Plaintiff s FOIA request via email on March 5, 2018, providing the tracking number recited in the Complaint. See ECF No. 9 (Def. Mot.), Attach. 2 (Declaration of Mary Ann Zimmerman), ¶ 12; Compl. at 2. The Government also states that OPD emailed Powell a decision letter on April 4, 2018. See Zimmerman Decl., ¶ 13. The letter directed him to submit a proper request by completing an enclosed request form and sending it to a specified address, along with “proof of death and proof of your relationship to the deceased.” ECF No. 17 (Def. Notice), Exh. B (April 4, 2018, Letter from Monica Chyn) at 1-2. The decision letter also explained how to file an appeal “[i]f [Powell] disagree[d] with this decision.” Id. at 2. SSA sent both the acknowledgment and decision letter through FOIAonline to the email address for Plaintiff that was listed on his FOIAonline account, his FOIA request, and the Court's docket. See Zimmerman Decl., ¶ 14; Def. SUMF, ¶ 4 & n.3. Powell maintains that he “never received” the April 4, 2018, decision letter. See Surreply at 1. In other words, he must claim that it was pure coincidence that he filed suit a mere two days later.

         B. Privacy Act Request

         Plaintiff alleges that he submitted the Privacy Act request on February 19, 2018, via First Class Mail, “to the address listed in the Federal Register of SSA Privacy Officer, Social Security Administration, 6401 Security Boulevard, 617 Altmeyer Building, Baltimore, MD 21235, with ‘Privacy Act Request' written on the front of the envelope.” Compl. at 2-3. Plaintiff repeats this information in his affidavit, adding that the request was mailed from the Main Post Office in Detroit, Michigan, and that SSA never responded to his follow-up phone message. See ECF No. 12 (Pl. Opp.), Attach. 1 (Affidavit of William E. Powell), ¶¶ 2-3. Plaintiff argues his affidavit “speaks for itself with regard to the mailing delivery.” Surreply at 2.

         In response, SSA maintains that it never received the request, which, even if mailed, was improperly addressed. See Def. Mot. at 3. Defendant notes that Plaintiff “provides no proof of mailing, ” Def. SUMF, ¶ 6, and states that it “has no record in its tracking system” of Plaintiff's request, even though the request as addressed (if received) “would have been forwarded to OPD, ” which “would have recorded receipt of the request” in FOIAonline and “sent Mr. Powell a letter explaining where to properly route his request.” Zimmerman Decl., ¶¶ 5-10. Finally, Defendant points out that the request should have been addressed to the managers of the three systems for which Plaintiff sought records. Id, ¶ 3; Def SUMF, ¶ 6(a).

         II. Legal Standard

         Exhaustion of remedies under FOIA “is a jurisprudential doctrine that prevents judicial review if the purposes of exhaustion and the particular administrative scheme support such a bar.” Kalu v. IRS, 2015 WL 4077756, at *4 (D.D.C. July 1, 2015) (quotations and citation omitted). Exhaustion under the Privacy Act, by contrast, “is a jurisdictional threshold to challenging an agency determination.” Kearns v. FAA, 312 F.Supp.3d 97, 107 (D.D.C. 2018). As a result, the Court will analyze Defendant's Motion under Rule 56 with respect to the FOIA claim, Kalu, 2015 WL 4077756, at *4, and under Rule 12(b)(1) for the Privacy Act claim. Powell, 317 F.Supp.3d at 272, 275.

         “FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment.” Defenders of Wildlife v. Border Patrol 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009); Bigwood v. U.S. Agency for Int'l Dev., 484 F.Supp.2d 68, 73 (D.D.C. 2007). In a FOIA case, a court may grant summary judgment based solely on information provided in an agency's affidavits or declarations when they “describe the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstrate that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record nor by evidence of agency bad faith.” Larson v. Dep't of State, 565 F.3d 857, 862 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). “Unlike the review of other agency action that must be upheld if supported by substantial evidence and not arbitrary or capricious, the FOIA expressly places the burden ‘on the agency to sustain its action' and directs the district courts to ‘determine the matter de novo.'” Dep't of Justice v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 755 (1989) (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B)).

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), a plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the Court has subject-matter jurisdiction to hear his 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 materials outside the ...

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