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Blakeney v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 5, 2019

STEVEN BLAKENEY, Plaintiff,
v.
FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, et al. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          BERYL A. HOWELL CHIEF JUDGE.

         The plaintiff, Steven Blakeney, is a federal prisoner who brings this action under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552, against the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (“EOUSA”) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), seeking information about himself and the criminal case resulting in his conviction, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, see generally Compl., ECF No. 1; Suppl. to Compl., ECF No. 1-2 (plaintiff's letter, dated September 20, 2017, to EOUSA attaching his FOIA request and related correspondence). After completing processing of responsive records, defendant EOUSA has filed the pending Motion for Summary Judgment (“EOUSA's MSJ”), ECF No. 15. By contrast, defendant FBI made four productions of responsive records between July and October 2018, but has withheld further releases over the last four months, until the plaintiff fulfills his agreed-to obligation to pay “all unpaid money owed for previously released material and pay [] for future anticipated processing.” Pl.'s Mot. for FBI to Produce a Vaughn Index (“Pl.'s Mot. for Vaughn Index”) ¶ 15, ECF No. 31; FBI's Consent Mot. for Enlargement of Time (“FBI's Consent Mot.”) at 1, ECF No. 33. Instead of fulfilling his payment obligations, the plaintiff has filed the pending Motion for FBI to Produce a Vaughn Index, ECF No. 31.[1] For the reasons discussed below, EOUSA's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted, the plaintiff's Motion for FBI to Produce a Vaughn Index is denied, and this case is dismissed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The plaintiff submitted his FOIA request, dated April 11, 2017, to the “Department of Justice's FOIA/PA Mail Referral Unit” (“MRU”), seeking records, for the years 2010 through 2017, pertaining to himself and the federal criminal case resulting in his conviction in the Eastern District of Missouri. EOUSA's Statement of Material Facts (“EOUSA's SMF”) ¶ 5, ECF No. 15. MRU notified the plaintiff of receipt of his request by letter and routed the plaintiff's request to EOUSA. Id. ¶ 6.

         Upon receipt, EOUSA asked the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Missouri (“USAO-MOE”) to search for responsive records because USAO-MOE “was primarily responsible for handling the prosecution of” the criminal case underlying the plaintiff's FOIA request. Id. ¶¶ 7-8. After conducting a search, USAO-MOE submitted to EOUSA all “responsive, non-public records.” Id. ¶ 8.

         EOUSA reviewed those records and sent the plaintiff “a final determination response, ” releasing 242 pages “in full, ” 144 pages “with minor redactions, ” and withholding 59 pages “in full, ” pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 5, 6, and 7(C). Id. ¶ 9. The plaintiff communicated no objections to EOUSA after receiving EOUSA's final determination. Id. ¶ 13. As a result, EOUSA filed the pending motion for summary judgment, arguing that the case became moot because the agency had produced all responsive, non-exempt records and received no objection from the plaintiff, leaving no live dispute between the parties. EOUSA's Mem. Supp. MSJ (“EOUSA's Mem.”) at 20, ECF No. 15. Despite his silence as to the sufficiency of EOUSA's handling of his FOIA request, the plaintiff opposed EOUSA's motion with a short, four-page opposition largely devoted to reciting the procedural history. See Pl.'s Opp'n at 1-2. EOUSA's motion for summary judgment is now ripe for resolution.

         With respect to the FBI, the other defendant in this action, EOUSA informed the plaintiff in the final determination that “additional records located in the USAO-MOE's files originated with the [FBI], ” and those records “were referred” to the FBI “for review and direct response” to the plaintiff. EOUSA's SMF ¶ 9.[2] The FBI subsequently identified “potentially responsive” material, including 3, 104 pages, 130 photographs, 15 videos, and 8 audio recordings, and agreed to process and produce the responsive materials to the plaintiff at a rate of 500 pages per month. FBI's Notice to the Court at 1, ECF No. 13. After producing materials to the plaintiff, with certain redactions, over the course of four months, the FBI stopped releasing material because the plaintiff failed to pay the FBI's processing fees for “previously released material” and refused to prepay for future releases. FBI's Consent Mot. at 1; FBI's Status Report at 1, ECF No. 35; Pl.'s Mot. for Vaughn Index ¶¶ 15, 16. The FBI conferred with the plaintiff's counsel and the parties reached the following agreement: “The parties have agreed that: 1) Plaintiff must pay Defendant FBI all unpaid money owed for previously released material and pay Defendant FBI for future anticipated processing 2) Once the payment is received, Defendant will resume processing material at 500 pages a month as previously agreed upon.” FBI's Consent Mot. At 1. The FBI further agreed to continue releasing records “within 15 days of receiving payment by Plaintiff, ” id., and “in two installments” thereafter, “each 30 days after the prior release, ” id. at 2.

         Notwithstanding the parties' agreement, the plaintiff has made no payments and instead seeks an order compelling the FBI to produce a Vaughn Index for the materials that the FBI disclosed. See Pl.'s Mot. for Vaughn Index ¶ 19; FBI's Status Report at 1. Due to the plaintiff's failure to fulfill his obligations to pay the FBI for months, the Court addresses the plaintiff's pending motion and dismissal of the plaintiff's FBI claim sua sponte.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “The doctrine of administrative exhaustion applies to” FOIA cases “and limits the availability of judicial review.” Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. IRS, 910 F.3d 1232, 1238 (D.C. Cir. 2018). “Although exhaustion of a FOIA request is not jurisdictional, ” this “jurisprudential doctrine” precludes “judicial review if the purposes of exhaustion and the particular administrative scheme support such a bar.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         When a FOIA plaintiff satisfies the exhaustion requirement, a federal agency must show that it “disclose[d] information . . . upon reasonable request, ” unless “the records at issue fall within” FOIA's “specifically delineated exemptions.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 901 F.3d 343, 349 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). A “strong presumption in favor of disclosure places the burden on the agency to justify the withholding of any requested documents.” Id. An agency may satisfy this burden through “affidavits or declarations that 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.” Id. Summary judgment may be granted to a federal agency when the agency sustains its burden by showing 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); see also Brayton v. Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (“[T]he vast majority of FOIA cases can be resolved on summary judgment . . . .”).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The pending motions by EOUSA for summary judgment and by the plaintiff for the FBI to produce a Vaughn Index are addressed seriatim below.

         A. EOUSA's Motion for Summary Judgment

         EOUSA sets out three grounds for the agency's entitlement to summary judgment: (1) the agency adequately searched in response to the plaintiff's FOIA request; (2) the agency properly withheld information, pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 5, 6, and 7(C), as demonstrated by EOUSA's supporting declaration and Vaughn index, see Decl. of Natasha Hudgins (“Hudgins Decl.”), ECF No. 15-1; EOUSA's Vaughn Index, ECF No. 15-2; and (3) the ...


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