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Lynn v. National Archives and Record Administration

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 7, 2019



          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY United States District Judge

         This lawsuit arises from a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request that Plaintiff Katalin Lynn made to Defendant National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”). Plaintiff requested ten classified documents, totaling 733 pages, relating to the so-called Grombach Organization, a secret American intelligence operation which functioned between 1942 and 1955. Plaintiff requested these documents for a biography that she is writing on Tibor Eckhardt, a Hungarian diplomat who provided the United States with intelligence in coordination with Army Captain John Grombach, leader of the Grombach Organization.

         In response to Plaintiff's FOIA request, Defendant located the ten requested documents. As the documents were designated restricted status, Defendant sought direction from the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) as to whether or not access could be provided to the documents. The CIA informed Defendant that access to the ten documents must be denied in their entirety on the basis of FOIA Exemptions 1 and 3 as the records concern intelligence activities, sources, and methods the disclosure of which would risk damaging national security. Defendant in turn withheld in full the ten documents from Plaintiff.

         Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this suit claiming that Defendant failed to establish that the documents are being rightfully withheld in full under FOIA Exemptions 1 and 3. Defendant has filed for summary judgment contending that FOIA Exemptions 1 and 3 prevent disclosure of the requested documents.

         Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as it currently stands, the Court GRANTS Defendant's motion for summary judgment. The Court concludes that the documents are exempt from FOIA based on Exemptions 1 and 3.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In her FOIA request, Plaintiff seeks ten classified documents found in the “Central Intelligence Agency: Group 263: Records of the Grombach Organization” for use in connection with a biography on Tibor Eckhardt. Def.'s Statement of Material Facts, ECF No. 11, ¶ 1. The record group in which the ten requested documents are located consists of records accessioned to Defendant from the CIA. Id. at ¶ 3. Due to their classification status, the requested documents are designated as restricted access and are not available to the public. Id.

         Defendant consulted with the CIA, the agency with declassification authority, to determine whether or not the documents could be declassified and access could be provided to Plaintiff. Id. at ¶ 4. The CIA informed Defendant that the release of the ten documents should be denied in their entirety based on FOIA Exemptions 1 and 3. Id. at ¶ 6. Defendant, in turn, informed Plaintiff that the documents relating to Plaintiff's FOIA request would be withheld in their entirety pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 1 and 3. Id. at ¶ 7.

         After being informed that her requested documents would not be disclosed, Plaintiff appealed the decision to withhold the ten documents in their entirety. Id. at ¶ 10. Following receipt of the appeal, Defendant re-consulted with the CIA regarding the exemptions to FOIA. But, prior to Defendant's response to Plaintiff's appeal, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit asking the Court to review the withholding and to compel Defendant to release at least some of the ten requested documents. Declaration of David J. Mengel, ECF No. 11-1, ¶¶ 18-19. Subsequently, Defendant moved for summary judgment.


         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.” Fed. Bureau of Investigation 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 the 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 and citations 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. 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). “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).


         Plaintiff does not challenge the adequacy of Defendant's search for responsive records to Plaintiff's FOIA request. As such, the sole issue before the Court is whether or not the ten undisclosed documents regarding the Grombach Organization fall under FOIA Exemptions 1 and 3. Considering the arguments of the parties, the ...

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