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Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Department of Justice

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 11, 2019

JUDICIAL WATCH, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In the spring of 2017, former FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok was assigned to join Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Just a few months later, Mueller removed the veteran counterintelligence agent from the investigation and the FBI reassigned him to its Human Resources Division. Media outlets revealed why that December: Strzok had exchanged text messages with an FBI colleague suggesting a potential bias against then-candidate Donald Trump.

         Suspecting something was amiss, Plaintiff Judicial Watch, Inc. submitted a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request to the FBI in August 2017-before news of the texts broke- seeking records relating to Strzok's assignment to and from the Mueller investigation. The FBI responded by producing all or parts of 16 pages of emails and withholding three other pages based on several overlapping FOIA exemptions. Dissatisfied with the Bureau's response, Judicial Watch sued. Both sides have now moved for summary judgment, focusing entirely on the adequacy of the FBI's records search. For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny the government's motion for summary judgment and grant Judicial Watch's cross motion.

         I. Background

Judicial Watch's FOIA request asked for the following records:
Any and all records regarding, concerning, or related to the assignment of FBI Supervisor Peter Strzok to the special counsel's investigation led by former Director Robert Mueller.
Any and all records regarding, concerning, or related to the reassignment of FBI Supervisor Peter Strzok from the special counsel's investigation to another position within the FBI.
This request includes, but is not limited to, any and all forms SF-50 and/or SF-52, as well as any and all related records of communication between any official, employee, or representative of the FBI and any other individual or entity.

Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶ 5.

         In response, the FBI searched Agent Strzok's personnel file and records maintained by its Human Resources Division and Central Records System. First Declaration of David M. Hardy (“First Hardy Decl.”), ECF No. 7-1, ¶¶ 18-19, 21. These searches produced zero responsive records. Id. The agency then searched Strzok's email account using the terms “assignment, ” “reassignment, ” and “appointment” in conjunction with the phrase “special counsel.” Id. ¶ 22. This search produced 19 pages of responsive emails and attachments-mostly congratulatory notes from colleagues and discussions about the logistics of the transfer. Id. ¶ 25. The FBI released all or parts of 16 pages and fully withheld three. Id.

         Judicial Watch filed suit in December 2017 and both parties have now moved for summary judgment. Judicial Watch challenges only the adequacy of the FBI's search. Judicial Watch Mot. Summ. J. (“JW MSJ”), ECF No. 9, at 2.

         II. Legal Standard

         FOIA cases are typically resolved on summary judgment. See Brayton v. Office of U.S. Trade Rep., 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011). Summary judgment is appropriate if “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).

         Under FOIA, government agencies must adequately search for responsive records. Rodriguez v. U.S. Dep't of Def., 236 F.Supp.3d 26, 34 (D.D.C. 2017). When a FOIA requester challenges the adequacy of an agency's search, the agency must show “beyond material doubt that its search was reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.” Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Dep't of State, 641 F.3d 504, 514 (D.C. Cir. 2011)) (citation, quotation marks omitted). Courts analyze the “appropriateness of the methods” used by the agency rather than the fruits of the search. Francis v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 267 F.Supp.3d 9, 12 (D.D.C. 2017). “Although a requester must reasonably describe the records sought, an agency also has a duty to construe a FOIA request liberally.” Nation Magazine, Wash. Bureau v. U.S. Customs Serv., 71 F.3d 885, 890 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (alteration, citation, and quotation marks omitted). More simply, while agencies “need not turn over every stone, [] they must conduct a ...


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