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American Oversight v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 29, 2019

AMERICAN OVERSIGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TIMOTHY J. KELLY, United States District Judge.

         In June 2017, American Oversight submitted three requests to the Environmental Protection Agency for communications records under the Freedom of Information Act. The EPA, determining that each request did not reasonably describe the records sought, told American Oversight that it could not process its requests without additional clarification. American Oversight disagreed, arguing that its requests as written reasonably described the records it was seeking, and declined to provide additional clarification. The EPA consequently denied the requests.

         American Oversight then sued, claiming that the EPA unlawfully refused to process its requests under FOIA. It sought to compel the agency to conduct searches and release any non-exempt, responsive records. Over the course of this proceeding, the parties resolved their disputes about American Oversight's three requests. But that did not end the matter. American Oversight also alleges that the EPA's refusals to process those requests resulted from an unlawful policy or practice, and it seeks an injunction prohibiting the EPA from continuing to apply that alleged policy to future requests. The parties have cross-moved for summary judgment on this remaining claim.

         American Oversight argues specifically that the EPA maintains a policy or practice of refusing to process any request for communications records unless it provides a subject matter or keyword for the search. The record, however, tells a different story. The EPA's responses to American Oversight's requests, and the requests from other organizations that American Oversight holds up in support of its claim, vary depending on the specifics-or lack thereof-of each request. For almost all the requests identified by American Oversight, the absence of an identified subject matter or keywords was one of multiple reasons the EPA asserted it was not reasonably described and requested more information to process it. And the EPA provides several examples of requests it agreed to process that did not include subject matters or keywords. Thus, the record cannot sustain American Oversight's claim that the EPA has a policy of refusing to process a request unless it receives subject matters or keywords.

         Accordingly, and for the reasons explained below, the EPA's Partial Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 11, will be granted and American Oversight's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 8, will be denied.[1]

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff American Oversight is an organization “committed to the promotion of transparency in government, the education of the public about government activities, and ensuring the accountability of government officials.” Compl. ¶ 5.[2] To educate the public about the activities of the federal government, American Oversight conducts research on the operations of federal agencies, in part through requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552. Compl. ¶ 5. At issue here are several FOIA requests American Oversight directed to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on June 23, 2017, each seeking email records from former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and senior members of his staff. See Compl. ¶¶ 12- 15. For ease and clarity, the Court adopts the labels for each request used by American Oversight in its briefing.

         The first request, the “Pruitt Communications FOIA, ” asked for:

All emails between Scott Pruitt and Ryan Jackson (Chief of Staff), John Reeder (Deputy Chief of Staff), or Mike Flynn (Acting Deputy Administrator) from June 1, 2017, to June 15, 2017.

Pl.'s Ex. 1.

         The second request, the “Outside Communications FOIA, ” asked for:

All emails between (a) Scott Pruitt, Ryan Jackson (Chief of Staff), John Reeder (Deputy Chief of Staff), or Mike Flynn (Acting Deputy Administrator) and (b) any email address not containing a .gov domain name (i.e., email addresses with domain names that include .com, .net, .org, or .edu) from June 1, 2017, to June 15, 2017.

Pl.'s Ex. 2.

         The third request, the “Congressional Communications FOIA, ” asked for:

All emails between (a) Scott Pruitt, Ryan Jackson (Chief of Staff), John Reeder (Deputy Chief of Staff), or Mike Flynn (Acting Deputy Administrator) and (b) any email address containing a house.gov or senate.gov domain from June 1, 2017, to June 15, 2017.

Pl.'s Ex. 3.

         Six days later, American Oversight received three emails from the EPA's FOIA division, stating that the EPA needed more details to process its requests. Responding to the Pruitt Communications FOIA, the EPA stated that it “[could not] process [American Oversight's] request at [that] time as it [did] not reasonably define a set of records to search as required by the FOIA and EPA regulations, ” citing 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3) and 40 C.F.R. § 2.102(c). Pl.'s Ex. 4. The email specified further that the request “fail[ed] to provide details such as the subject matters, titles[, ] or key terms.” Id. And it invited American Oversight to contact the EPA to “clarify [its] request.” Id.

         The email responding to the Outside Communications FOIA also stated that the EPA could not process the request because it was not reasonably described. Pl.'s Ex. 5. The EPA explained that the request “fail[ed] to provide details such as the names of potential authors or recipients, subject matters, titles[, ] or key terms.” Id. It also stated that “the language regarding domain names [was] insufficient to allow the EPA to discern the subject matter and authors or ...


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