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.

Reyes v. United States National Archives and Records Administration

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 18, 2018

FELICIANA G. REYES, Plaintiff
v.
UNITED STATES NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Feliciana Reyes brought this action against the United States National Archives and Records Administration under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), seeking records regarding a U.S. Army Report on the recognition of Filipino veterans of World War II. Before the Court is Plaintiff's [24] Motion for an Award of Attorneys' Fees and Costs. Because the parties have resolved their substantive disputes over the materials requested and produced through a Court-supervised process, the request for fees and costs is the only issue remaining in the case. With respect to the pending request, Defendant contests Plaintiff's eligibility for fees, Plaintiff's entitlement to fees, and the reasonableness of Plaintiff's fee request.

         Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record for purposes of this motion, the Court GRANTS in PART and DENIES in PART Plaintiff's [24] Motion for an Award of Attorneys' Fees and Costs. The Court concludes that Plaintiff is both eligible for and entitled to receive fees, but that the amount of fees requested is not reasonable given the circumstances of this case. Therefore, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's request as to $19, 939.20 in fees and $429.20 in costs and awards those amounts; the Court otherwise DENIES Plaintiff's request. This case is dismissed in its entirety.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 21, 2017, Plaintiff submitted a FOIA request to Defendant, requesting “all Records in possession, custody, or control of [Defendant] concerning the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund (FVECF) Interagency Working Group (IWG) and that reference, refer to, or relate to the report U.S. Army Recognition Program of Philippine Guerrillas.” Complaint, Ex. 4, ECF No. 1-4, 2. The Army Report, which was the subject of Plaintiff's FOIA request, describes “‘the guerilla resistance movement in the Philippines [during World War II] and the mission of the United States Army to award those valiant members of this fraternity who contributed materially to the defeat of the common foe … their entitlement to soldier emoluments and veterans benefits.'” Complaint, ECF No. 1, ¶ 15 (quoting Foreword to U.S. Army Report on the Recognition Program of Philippine Guerrillas). The Army Report reveals particular problems with recognizing the service of female guerrilla fighters, explaining that “[t]he close scrutiny given the functions of women guerrillas ultimately led to the belief that, [] excepting nurses, no women should be recognized.” Id. at ¶ 25 (emphasis removed) (quoting U.S. Army Report on the Recognition Program of Philippine Guerrillas, 106).

         Through her FOIA request, Plaintiff intended to discover which agencies had received this report and were aware of the issues with formally recognizing, in particular, female Filipino guerrilla fighters. These records could assist Plaintiff in her appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, where she argued that her denial of benefits under the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund violated the Equal Protection Clause by intentionally discriminating against Filipino women who served as guerilla fighters in World War II. Id. at ¶ 26. Plaintiff's FOIA request also noted that “the subject matter related to the FOIA request- benefits for Filipinos who served in WWII-has met widespread and exceptional media interest and the information sought involves possible questions about the government's integrity that affect public confidence. The news media has widely reported issues with veterans being found ineligible for this benefit and Congress has held hearings on the subject.” Complaint, Ex. 4, ECF No. 1-4, 2.

         On March 22, 2017, the day after Plaintiff submitted her FOIA request, Defendant acknowledged receipt of the FOIA request and assigned it a tracking number. Complaint, ECF No. 1, ¶ 34. By March, 30, 2017, Defendant had completed its initial search which had yielded approximately 25, 000 potentially responsive records. Dec. of Joseph A. Scanlon, ECF No. 27-2, ¶ 9. On April 3, 2017, Defendant denied Plaintiff's request for expedited processing that had been included in her FOIA request. Complaint, ECF No. 1, ¶ 35. But, following an administrative appeal of the denial of expedited processing, on May 8, 2017, Defendant granted Plaintiff's FOIA request for expedited processing and explained that her request was sixth in Defendant's expedited que. Id. at ¶ 38. Following the grant of expedited processing, Defendant neither released any records nor provided any explanation for its delay until Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on July 26, 2017.

         Following the filing of her complaint, Plaintiff also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against Defendant. See Mot. for Prelim. Inj., ECF No. 4. Shortly thereafter, Defendant contacted Plaintiff, explaining that Defendant had already conducted its search and was processing Plaintiff's request. Def.'s Opp'n, Ex. B, ECF No. 27-3, 4-5. Defendant also stated that it would make its initial release of responsive documents on August 18, 2017, and would provide Plaintiff with an update on the release of documents requiring inter-agency consultation by September 8, 2018. Id. at 5. Initially, Plaintiff opposed Defendant's proposed schedule. But, during a subsequent teleconference with the Court, Plaintiff agreed to Defendant's proposed schedule, and the parties filed a Joint Status Report reflecting their agreement on August 7, 2017. See Joint Status Report, ECF No. 10, 2-4. That same day, the Court issued a Consent Order, memorializing the parties' agreement and mandating that Defendant make its initial disclosures by August 18, 2017 and provide Plaintiff with an update on the status of records subject to inter-agency consultation by September 8, 2017. Consent Order, ECF No. 11, 1-2. The order also held Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction in abeyance. Id.

         In accordance with the Court's order, on August 18, 2017, Defendant released all responsive records over which it had sole custody. Out of the 153 responsive records, Defendant released 30 pages in full, 31 pages in part, and fully withheld 88 pages. Joint Status Report, ECF No. 13, 3. Also pursuant to the Court's order, on September 8, 2017, Defendant updated Plaintiff on the status of records subject to inter-agency consultation. And, on October 13, 2017, Defendant issued its final release of records. Joint Status Report, ECF No. 18, 3-4. Following this final release, Plaintiff raised issues regarding certain withholdings. Id. at 9-11. But, the parties conferred, and on December 21, 2017, Plaintiff indicated that dispositive motions would not be necessary and that the only remaining issue was attorneys' fees. Joint Status Report, ECF No. 20, 1. In response to this report, the Court denied as moot Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction. See January 17, 2018 Minute Order. The Court also set a briefing schedule for Plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees and costs. See April 17, 2018 Minute Order.

         Following the Court's minute order, Plaintiff filed a motion for attorneys' fees and costs. See Pl.'s Mot., ECF No. 24. Defendant opposed Plaintiff's motion, arguing that Plaintiff is not eligible for fees, that Plaintiff is not entitled to fees, and that Plaintiff's fee request is unreasonable. See Def.'s Opp'n, ECF No. 27. That dispute is currently before the Court.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(i), a court may award reasonable attorney fees and other litigation costs reasonably incurred by a plaintiff who substantially prevails in an action against the government for the fulfillment of a FOIA request. In this Circuit, the attorney-fee inquiry is divided into two prongs, the fee “eligibility” and the fee “entitlement” prongs. Brayton v. Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 524 (D.C. Cir. 2011). Under the eligibility prong, the Court must determine whether a plaintiff has substantially prevailed and, as a result, may receive attorney fees. Id. A plaintiff has substantially prevailed upon obtaining relief either through a judicial order, enforceable written agreement, consent decree or, alternatively, through a voluntary or unilateral change in position by the agency, if the plaintiff's claim is not insubstantial. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(ii)(I)-(II).

         If the eligibility prong is satisfied, the Court next considers the entitlement prong to determine whether a plaintiff should receive fees. Brayton, 641 F.3d at 524. Under the entitlement prong, the Court must weigh four factors: “‘(1) the public benefit derived from the case; (2) the commercial benefit to the plaintiff; (3) the nature of the plaintiff's interest in the records; and (4) the reasonableness of the agency's withholding.'” Judicial Watch, Inc. v. FBI, 522 F.3d 364, 371 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Tax Analysts v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 965 F.2d 1092, 1093 (D.C. Cir. 1992)). No. one factor is dispositive, and “[t]he sifting of those criteria over the facts of a case is a matter of district court discretion.” Tax Analysts, 965 F.2d at 1094.

         Finally, if the Court concludes that a plaintiff is eligible for and entitled to fees, the Court considers the reasonableness of the fees requested. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(i) (stating that a plaintiff who substantially prevails may be awarded ''reasonable attorney fees and other litigation costs'').

         III. ELIGIBILITY FOR FEES

         A plaintiff has substantially prevailed upon obtaining relief either through a judicial order, enforceable written agreement, consent decree or, alternatively, through a voluntary or unilateral change in position by the agency, if the plaintiff's claim is not insubstantial. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(ii)(I)-(II). Here, the Court concludes in its discretion that Plaintiff substantially prevailed in her FOIA case based on the Court's Consent Order mandating that Defendant release responsive records by a date certain. See generally Consent Order, ECF No. 11. Accordingly, Plaintiff is eligible for attorneys' fees.

         The Court concludes that Plaintiff substantially prevailed in her FOIA litigation when, on August 7, 2017, the Court issued a Consent Order requiring Defendant to produce all responsive documents in Defendant's control by August 18, 2017. See Id. In an email exchange which occurred approximately one week after Plaintiff filed this lawsuit, Defendant proposed that it issue a final determination and release all records not requiring inter-agency consultation by August 18, 2017. Def.'s Opp'n, Ex. B, ECF No. 27-3, 4-5. Defendant further proposed that it confer with Plaintiff by September 8, 2017 regarding the status of any needed consultations. Id. Plaintiff initially objected to this timeline, but following a teleconference with the Court, the parties filed a Joint Status Report indicating that they had agreed to Defendant's proposed schedule. Joint Status Report, ECF No. 10, 2-4. Following this report, the Court issued a Consent Order memorializing the parties' agreement and ordering Defendant to “[c]omplete processing all records it has located over which it has sole custody or control (including the release of all responsive, non-exempt portions of such records)” by August 18, 2017. Consent Order, ECF No. 11, 1. The Court further ordered Defendant to “provide Plaintiff with an update on the status of all records subject to inter-agency consultation” by September 8, 2017. Id. at 2.

         Under the FOIA fee award statute, “a complainant has substantially prevailed if the complainant has obtained relief through … a judicial order … or consent decree.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(ii)(I). The Court's Consent Order mandated that Defendant make an initial release responsive records to Plaintiff by a date certain, thus granting Plaintiff a substantial portion of the relief she sought. Accordingly, under the plain terms of the statute, Plaintiff substantially prevailed and is eligible for attorneys' fees.

         However, Defendant argues that the Court's Consent Order is not sufficient to establish that Plaintiff substantially prevailed because the parties had already agreed to do that which the Court ordered. Because the parties had already agreed that Defendant would make initial disclosures by August 18, 2017, Defendant contends that the Court's order did not change the legal relationship between the parties. See Davy v. CIA, 456 F.3d 162, 165 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (explaining that the plaintiff substantially prevailed because the court's order “changed the legal relationship between [the plaintiff] and the defendant” (alteration in original)). “A court order that changes the legal relationship between the parties is one that requires a party ‘to do what the law required-something that it had theretofore been unwilling to do.'” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals v. Nat'l Inst. of Health, 130 F.Supp.3d 156, 162 (D.D.C. 2015) (quoting Campaign for Responsible Transplantation v. Food & Drug Admin., 511 F.3d 187, 196 (D.C. Cir. 2007)). Defendant contends that the Court's order did not change the legal relationship between the parties because Defendant and Plaintiff had mutually agreed to the August 18, 2017 release date prior to the Court's order.

         Defendant misconstrues the standard. That the Court ordered Defendant to do something that it had voluntarily agreed to do in the course of litigation is irrelevant. What matters is that the Court ordered Defendant to take an action, make an initial release of responsive records by August 18, 2017, that Defendant had been unwilling to do prior to the initiation of the lawsuit. And, here, there is no evidence that Defendant was willing to make its initial disclosures by a date certain prior to Plaintiff filing her lawsuit.

         For example, in Davy v. Central Intelligence Agency, the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia (“D.C. Circuit”) explained that a plaintiff can substantially prevail based on a court order even if the defendant had already agreed to do that which the court orders. 456 F.3d at 165. In Davy, the parties had reached a Joint Stipulation for the release of responsive documents by a date certain. Id. at 163-64. The district court then “approved the Joint Stipulation and memorialized it in a court order.” Id. at 164. The D.C. Circuit concluded that the district court's order memorializing the parties' joint stipulation was sufficient for the plaintiff to substantially prevail because the order “(1) contains mandatory language …; (2) is entitled an ‘ORDER'; and (3) bears the district judge's signature, not those of the parties' counsel.” Id. at 166. The Circuit Court explained that it was irrelevant that the defendant had voluntarily agreed to the production schedule because the district court's order still mandated that the defendant undertake an action that it had been unwilling to take prior to the initiation of the lawsuit. Id. at 164-66.

         Similar to Davy, this Court's Consent Order (1) contains mandatory language (“[b]y August 18, 2017, Defendant will do the following”); is entitled a “CONSENT ORDER” and; (3) bears the Judge's signature. See Consent Order, ECF No. 11. Accordingly, “[e]ven though the parties arrived at a mutually acceptable agreement, … the order memorializing the agreement created the necessary judicial imprimatur for [P]laintiff[] to be a prevailing party.” Campaign for Responsible Trans., 511 F.3d at 197 (emphasis in original) (explaining that the plaintiff substantially prevailed under the court's order mandating the release of documents even though the defendant had already agreed to release those documents after the court ruled on dispositive motions). Regardless of Defendant's voluntary agreement to release the records by August 18, 2017, the Court's Consent Order changed the legal relationship between the parties by creating a legal obligation for Defendant to release the documents. Id. (“explaining that “[o]nce an order has been adopted by the court, requiring the agency to release documents, the legal relationship between the parties changes” (emphasis in original)); see also Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. FBI, 72 F. supp. 3d 338, 344-45 (D.D.C. 2014) (finding that the plaintiff substantially prevailed “by obtaining production of responsive documents pursuant to the Court's … Order, which approved the parties' stipulated production date”).

         Accordingly, the Court concludes that Plaintiff substantially prevailed in her FOIA litigation because the Court's Consent Order mandated that Defendant release responsive documents by a date certain. Even though Defendant had already agreed to the release date, the Court's order changed the legal relationship between the parties. Additionally, the Court's order mandating an initial release of responsive documents constituted some relief on the merits. As Plaintiff substantially prevailed, she is eligible for attorneys' fees and costs.

         IV.ENTITLEMENT TO FEES

         After determining that Plaintiff is eligible for attorneys' fees, the Court must still determine if Plaintiff is entitled to fees. To determine whether Plaintiff is entitled to attorneys' fees, the Court must weigh four factors: “‘(1) the public benefit derived from the case; (2) the commercial benefit to the plaintiff; (3) the nature of the plaintiff's interest in the records; and (4) the reasonableness of the agency's withholding.'” Judicial Watch, 522 F.3d at 371 (quoting Tax Analysts, 965 F.2d at 1093). No. one factor of the test is dispositive, and the weighing of the factors is a matter of district court discretion. See Tax Analysts, 965 F.2d at 1094. Here, after considering all the factors, the Court concludes that the factors cumulatively weigh in favor of finding that Plaintiff is entitled to attorneys' fees.

         A. ...


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.