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Spataro v. Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 29, 2019




         The matter is before the Court on the Department of Justice's renewed motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 45. Plaintiff Michael Spataro, proceeding pro se, is suing the Department under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) to obtain agency records that refer to him; specifically, records from the criminal investigation that resulted in his trial and conviction before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Previously, the Court granted in part and denied in part the Department's motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 26. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will now GRANT the Department's renewed motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The facts of this case are set out in the Court's prior opinion. See Dkt. 35 at 2-7. To summarize, Plaintiff was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering, assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering, and use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence in 2006, for which he received a sentence of 338 months' imprisonment. Id. at 2. In 2013, he submitted a FOIA request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), seeking all agency records “pertaining” to him-in particular, those that “concern[ed] in part” the criminal investigation leading up to his trial and conviction in the Eastern District of New York. Id. (quoting Dkt. 1-2 at 3). Upon receiving no responsive documents, Plaintiff brought this FOIA action against the FBI on February 3, 2014. Dkt. 1-1 at I. In response, the FBI asked for a stay in proceedings so that it could locate and process all responsive records. Dkt. 12 at 1. The FBI released certain responsive records, and, on February II, 2015, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint challenging the FBI's withholdings of “[r]ecords furnished during the stay.” Dkt. 24 at 1 (Amended Compl. ¶ 2).

         On March 23, 2015, the Department moved to dismiss, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, arguing that it had “produc[ed] all responsive, non-exempt documents” and that, “where information has been withheld, ” it had properly invoked FOIA Exemptions 3, 6, 7(C), and 7(D). Dkt. 26 at 3-4 (citing 5 U.S.C. §§ 552(b)(3), (6), (7)(C), & (7)(D)). The Court agreed in part and disagreed in part. The Court held that it could not conclude that “the FBI ha[d] reasonably exhausted its efforts to locate responsive records” because there were damaged files that were “still . . . ‘awaiting remediation;'” the Court noted that, if the remediation process “yield[ed] records that [were] both responsive . . . and non-exempt under FOIA, the FBI should release those records.” Dkt. 35 at 24-25. Moreover, although the Court held that the Department had justified its withholdings under FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C), see Id. at 12-17, it concluded that the Department had failed to offer sufficient support for its withholdings under FOIA Exemptions 3 and 7(D), see Id. at 10-11, 19-20.

         Armed with new declarations responsive to the Court's concerns, the Department renewed its motion for summary judgment on January 25, 2018. Dkt. 45. Plaintiff did not respond-despite twice being ordered to so-until October 18, 2018. Dkt. 50; see also Dkt. 47 (ordering Plaintiff to respond); Dkt. 46 (same). Plaintiff's opposition, moreover, fails to dispute any facts the Department relied on in support of its summary judgment motion. See generally Dkt. 50. Accepting the government's factual representations as true, [1] the Court concludes that the Department has satisfied its FOIA obligations and will, accordingly, grant the motion for summary judgment.


         The Freedom of Information Act mandates that an agency disclose records on request, unless they fall within one of nine exemptions. “These exemptions are explicitly made exclusive and must be narrowly construed.” Milner v. Dep't of Navy, 562 U.S. 562, 565 (2011) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Two FOIA exemptions are relevant here. First, Exemption 3 “provides that FOIA's disclosure obligation ‘does not apply to matters that are . . . specifically exempted from disclosure by [another] statute,' if the statute ‘(i) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue,' or ‘(ii) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld.'” Labow v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 831 F.3d 523, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (alteration in original) (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3)(A)). Second, Exemption 7(D) protects from disclosure “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, ” but “only to the extent that” disclosure “could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source . . . [or] information furnished by a confidential source.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(D).

         “FOIA cases are typically resolved on motions for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.” Shapiro v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 153 F.Supp.3d 253, 268 (D.D.C. 2016). To prevail on a summary judgment motion, the moving party must demonstrate that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that he or she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). “In a FOIA action, the Court may award summary judgment to an agency solely on the basis of information provided in affidavits or declarations that describe ‘. . . the justifications for nondisclosure [of records] with reasonably specific detail . . . and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record nor by evidence of agency bad faith.'” Thomas v. FCC, 534 F.Supp.2d 144, 145 (D.D.C. 2008) (alteration in original) (quoting Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981)). The Court reviews the agency's determinations de novo, and the agency bears the burden of sustaining its actions. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Department argues that it has now (1) adequately searched for records responsive to Plaintiff's FOIA request, and (2) sufficiently justified the FBI's withholdings. The Court will address each argument in turn.

         A. Adequacy of Search

         Previously, the Court denied summary judgment because the Department had not processed the records damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Dkt. 35 at 24-25. The Court noted, however, that once the “remediation process” of those records was complete, the Department could “file a renewed motion for summary judgment.” Id. at 25-26. The Department contends that it has now finished remediating those records and that it has released to Plaintiff the non-exempt responsive portions of those records in two productions, one on January 24, 2018, and the other on February 28, 2018. Dkt. 45-1 at 1 (Def.'s SUMF ¶¶ 1-2). In support of its motion, the Department offers a third declaration from David Hardy, the Section Chief of the FBI's Record/Information Dissemination Section (“RIDS”). Dkt. 45-2 (Third Hardy Decl.). Hardy attests that the “FBI [has now] reviewed all thirteen documents previously subject to ongoing remediation.” Id. at 3 (Third Hardy Decl. ¶¶ 6-7). Of the thirteen documents, Hardy attests that “eleven were found responsive to the request, and were processed and non-exempt portions of the documents totaling 56 pages were released to Plaintiff.” Id. (Third Hardy Decl. ¶ 7); see also Dkt. 45-1 at 1 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 2). “The remaining two documents . . . did not contain any information regarding Plaintiff.” Dkt. 45-2 at 3 (Third Hardy Decl. ¶ 7). With respect to the eleven responsive documents, the FBI advised Plaintiff that “information was being withheld pursuant to [FOIA] Exemptions” 3, 6, 7(C), 7(D), 7(E), 7(F), “as well as exemption (j)(2) under the Privacy Act.” Id. (Third Hardy Decl. ¶ 8); see also Id. at 30 (Ex. A) (Jan. 24, 2018 Letter); id. at 34 (Ex. B) (Feb. 28, 2018 Letter).

         As noted in the Court's previous opinion, the adequacy of an agency's FOIA search “is judged by a standard of reasonableness.” Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984). “In order to obtain summary judgment[, ] the agency must show that it made a good faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records, using methods which can be reasonably expected to produce the information requested.” Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990). Now that that the Department has completed ...

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