Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Liounis v. United States Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 7, 2018

PETER LIOUNIS, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This lawsuit arises from a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request that pro se Plaintiff Peter Liounis made to Defendant United States Department of Justice. Plaintiff requested documents related to the grand jury that issued an indictment against him, initiating criminal proceedings which eventually resulted in his conviction and current incarceration. The Executive Office for United States Attorneys (“EOUSA”), the department in possession of the requested records, has denied Plaintiff's FOIA request in full. The EOUSA claims that the requested documents are exempt under FOIA Exemption 3 in conjunction with Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e), on the grounds that grand jury material is exempt from mandatory release, and FOIA Exemption 5, on the grounds that the documents are attorney work product. Plaintiff filed this suit arguing that the EOUSA wrongfully denied his FOIA request.

         Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as it currently stands, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and GRANTS Defendant's motion for summary judgment. The Court concludes that Defendant conducted a reasonable search under FOIA and that all responsive documents have either already been released to Plaintiff or are exempt under FOIA Exemptions 3 and 5.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In his FOIA request, Plaintiff seeks to acquire documents related to the grand jury in the Eastern District of New York which issued an indictment resulting in a criminal trial at which Plaintiff was found guilty and later sentenced to 292-months imprisonment. Plaintiff's FOIA request is the latest in a long line of attempts to gain access to these grand jury documents. Prior to this FOIA request, during his criminal proceeding, Plaintiff submitted numerous in limine, pro se motions to dismiss the indictment due to alleged improprieties in the grand jury proceeding. Declaration of Jonathan P. Lax, 56-5, ¶ 7. Following his conviction, Plaintiff continued his attempts to gain access to his grand jury materials, arguing in more pro se motions that his indictment had been invalid due to impropriety in the grand jury. Id. ¶ 8. In addition to initiating this FOIA request, Plaintiff has continued his attempts to gain access to his grand jury materials through his criminal proceeding by filing a petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus and moving for discovery with respect to the indictment and grant jury proceedings. Id. at ¶ 10. In both his criminal proceeding and in his FOIA request, Plaintiff seeks these documents based on his belief that the records will show that government misconduct infected the grand jury proceeding, invalidating his indictment and his subsequent criminal conviction. First Am. Compl., ECF No. 30-1, 17.

         The EOUSA first received Plaintiff's FOIA request seeking his grand jury materials on January 19, 0217. Declaration of Vinay J. Jolly, ECF No. 13-1, Ex. A, 7-8. By letter dated February 23, 2017, the EOUSA denied Plaintiff's request for impermissibly seeking grand jury materials. Id. at Ex. B, 15. On that same day, the EOUSA received a second, duplicate FOIA request from Plaintiff seeking the same grand jury materials. Id. at Ex. C, 17-18. And again, by letter dated March 7, 2017, the EOUSA denied Plaintiff's second, duplicate FOIA request for impermissibly seeking grand jury materials. Id. at Ex. D, 21-22. On March 21, 2017, Plaintiff filed an administrative appeal for both denials. Id. at Ex. E, 23-34; Id. at Ex. F, 35-46. On appeal, the denial of Plaintiff's FOIA requests was affirmed as Plaintiff's requests impermissibly sought records which “may reveal some secret aspect of the grand jury's investigation.” Id. at Ex. J, 52; Id. at Ex. I, 49.

         Defendant now comes to this Court asking that the Court order the EOUSA to release the requested grand jury materials under FOIA. Presently before the Court are Defendant's [56] Motion for Summary Judgment and Plaintiff's [69] Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. But, these are not the first summary judgment cross-motions that the Court has considered in this case. In its June 11, 2018 Order, the Court denied without prejudice both parties' prior cross-motions for summary judgment. The Court concluded that Defendant had categorically denied Plaintiff's FOIA requests in their entirety, providing only a brief, conclusory explanation for doing so. Without a more detailed proffer, the Court could not be assured that all portions of all the requested documents were exempt from FOIA. Order, ECF No. 45, 1-4. As ordered by the Court, in its Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant has attached a Vaughn index listing the documents being withheld and briefly explaining why each document is exempt from disclosure. Considering this Vaughn index, Defendant's attached declarations, and the parties' arguments, the Court can now affirm Defendant's determination that the requested documents are exempt from disclosure under FOIA.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Congress enacted FOIA to “pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny.” Dep't of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976) (internal quotation marks omitted). Congress remained sensitive to the need to achieve balance between these objectives and the potential that “legitimate governmental and private interests could be harmed by release of certain types of information.” FBI v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615, 621 (1982). To that end, FOIA “requires federal agencies to make Government records available to the public, subject to nine exemptions.” Milner v. Dep't of Navy, 562 U.S. 562, 562 (2011). Ultimately, “disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of the Act.” Rose, 425 U.S. at 361. For this reason, the “exemptions are explicitly made exclusive, and must be narrowly construed.” Milner, 562 U.S. at 565 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         When presented with a motion for summary judgment in this context, the district court must conduct a “de novo” review of the record, which requires the court to “ascertain whether the agency has sustained its burden of demonstrating the documents requested are ... exempt from disclosure under the FOIA.” Multi Ag Media LLC v. U.S. Dep't of Agriculture, 515 F.3d 1224, 1227 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). The burden is on the agency to justify its response to the plaintiff's request. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). “An agency may sustain its burden by means of affidavits, but only 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.” Multi Ag Media, 515 F.3d at 1227 (internal quotation marks omitted). “If an agency's affidavit describes the justifications for withholding the information with specific detail, demonstrates that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and is not contradicted by contrary evidence in the record or by evidence of the agency's bad faith, then summary judgment is warranted on the basis of the affidavit alone.” Am. Civil Liberties Union v. U.S. Dep't of Defense, 628 F.3d 612, 619 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Uncontradicted, plausible affidavits showing reasonable specificity and a logical relation to the exemption are likely to prevail.” Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Dep't of State, 641 F.3d 504, 509 (D.C. Cir. 2011). Summary judgment is proper when the pleadings, the discovery materials on file, and any affidavits or declarations “show[ ] 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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         An agency must release all non-exempt documents responsive to a plaintiff's FOIA request following a search that is “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.” Ancient Coin Collectors, 641 F.3d at 514 (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, the Court concludes that the EOUSA conducted an adequate search for records responsive to Plaintiff's FOIA request. The Court further concludes that any responsive records were either made available to Plaintiff or were properly withheld under FOIA Exemptions 3 and 5.

         First, the Court will assess the adequacy of Defendant's search. Plaintiff contends that Defendant's search was not adequate because Defendant was unable to locate the requested voting and attendance records of the grand jurors. Pl.'s Mot., ECF No. 68, 6. Despite Plaintiff's argument, the Court finds that Defendant's search was adequate.

         “The Court applies a reasonableness test to determine the adequacy of search methodology ... consistent with the congressional intent tilting in favor of disclosure.” Campbell v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 164 F.3d 20, 27 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted). An agency “fulfills its obligations under FOIA if it can demonstrate beyond material doubt that its search was reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.” Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, 641 F.3d at 514 (internal quotation marks omitted). The agency may submit affidavits or declarations to explain the method and scope of its search. See Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 126 (D.C. Cir. 1982). And, such affidavits or declarations are “accorded a presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted by 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, if the record “leaves substantial doubt as to the sufficiency of the search, summary judgment for the agency is not proper.” Truitt v. Dep't of State, 897 F.2d 540, 542 (D.C. Cir. 1990).

         Here, Defendant submitted a declaration from Jonathan P. Lax concerning the adequacy of the search for records responsive to Plaintiff's FOIA request. Mr. Lax is an Assistant United States Attorney in the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York (“USAO-EDNY”). Declaration of Jonathan P. Lax, ECF. No. 56-6, ¶ 2. As Mr. Lax was involved in Plaintiff's post-conviction proceedings, Mr. Lax is familiar with Plaintiff's multiple failed attempts to seek judicial relief on the grounds of alleged grand jury impropriety. Id. at ¶ 3.

         Following this Court's June 11, 2018 Order, it was determined that the USAO-EDNY, which had handled the criminal case against Plaintiff, maintained all original records relevant to the matter. Id. at ¶ 4. As the USAO-EDNY was in possession of any and all responsive records, Mr. Lax reviewed the USAO-EDNY's file from Plaintiff's criminal proceeding. This file included the grand jury records pertaining Plaintiff's prosecution. Id. at ΒΆ 12. Specifically, Mr. Lax searched nine boxes of physical files and voluminous electronic case files, all ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.