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Willis v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 16, 2019




         Plaintiff Callen Willis believes that “she may have been misrepresented as having been affiliated with and/or having been under contract with the United States government minimally during 2014 and 2015” (Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶ 3) and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) has both “information pertaining to” this misrepresentation and “information specific to circumstances in which [she] was previously involved” (id. ¶ 5). In 2016 and 2017, Willis submitted a series of requests to the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552, and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, seeking records regarding herself, copies of prior FOIA/Privacy Act requests the FBI had received regarding her, and also the FBI's responses to any such requests. (See Decl. of David M. Hardy (“Hardy Decl.”), ECF No. 15-1, ¶¶ 5-7, 9, 11-13, 18, 25, 29.) The FBI conducted searches, and while it did not locate any records responsive to Willis's requests seeking information about herself (see Id. ¶¶ 40-41), it did locate and produce to Willis a total of 116 pages of records relating to FOIA/Privacy Act requests that she had previously submitted to the agency (see Id. ¶ 28). The agency's sole withholding (for which it invoked Exemption 6) was its redaction of the name of one FBI employee on one page. (See Id. ¶ 28 n.4).

         Before the Court at present is the FBI's motion for summary judgment, in which it argues that it has conducted reasonable and adequate searches for records responsive to Willis's various requests, and that its one Exemption 6 redaction was proper. (See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 15, at 12-16.)[1] Willis has filed an opposition to the FBI's motion in which she maintains that she “is entitled to the release of information via FOIA pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act 5 U.S.C. § 552 in the form of a Vaughn Index.” (Mot. Opposing Summ. J. (“Pl.'s Opp'n”), ECF No. 17, at 1.) Willis has also filed a separate one-paragraph motion asking this Court to compel the FBI to prepare a such an index. (See Mot. to Compel Preparation of a Vaughn Index (“Mot. to Compel”), ECF No. 18, at 1.)

         On March 29, 2019, this Court issued an order that GRANTED the FBI's motion for summary judgment and DENIED Willis's motion seeking to compel preparation of a Vaughn index. This Memorandum Opinion explains the reasons for that Order. In sum, this Court finds that the FBI a conducted a reasonable and adequate search for records responsive to Willis's requests, and that the FBI has sufficiently described the reasons underlying its one redaction in the declaration that it submitted in support of its motion for summary judgment, such that a Vaughn index is not needed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The FBI's Electronic Databases

         The FBI has historically housed its agency records, including “applicant, investigative, intelligence, personnel, administrative, and general files compiled and maintained by the FBI” in a system known as the Central Records System (“CRS”). (Hardy Decl. ¶ 32.) The FBI began using Sentinel, its next generation case management system, on July 1, 2012, and since date, “all FBI generated records are created electronically in case files via Sentinel[.]” (Id. ¶ 38.) Both the CRS and Sentinel are indexed, and when the FBI receives a request for records under the FOIA or the Privacy Act, it “employs an index search methodology” to locate responsive material. (Id. ¶ 39.)

         To search the CRS, the FBI uses an automated index application, within which an individual's name may be linked to “identifying information such as date of birth, race, sex, locality, Social Security Number, address, and/or date of an event.” (Id. ¶ 37.) In addition, if a records request seeks documents that may have been generated on or after July 1, 2012, the FBI might also perform a separate Sentinel index search. (See id.) See also Hedrick v. Fed. Bureau of Investigation, 216 F.Supp.3d 84, 87-88 (D.D.C. 2016) (describing in detail the FBI's records systems and its search procedures).

         B. Willis's Requests

         1. FOIPA Request No. 1347366-000

         By facsimile dated March 23, 2016, Willis submitted a FOIA/PA request to the FBI for “copies of all files, correspondence and other records concerning myself [Callen Willis].” (Ex. A to Hardy Decl., ECF No. 15-2, at 2.)[2] On March 28, 2016, Willis sent the FBI an email message asking that “any FOIPA response be mailed to her home address via certified mail.” (Hardy Decl. ¶ 8; see id., Ex. D.) The FBI assigned Willis's request for records Request Number 1347366-000, and responded to the request on March 31, 2016, stating that “a search of the FBI's Central Records System failed to locate any main file records responsive to her request.” (Hardy Decl. ¶ 14.) In addition, “[t]he FBI advised [Willis that] if she had additional information to provide showing she was of investigative interest to the FBI, the FBI would conduct an additional search.” (Id.)

         Willis appealed the FBI's response, and on June 6, 2016, DOJ's Office of Information Policy affirmed the FBI's determination. (See id. ¶¶ 15-17.)

         2. FOIPA Request No. 1347366-001

         On May 4, 2016, Willis sent a letter to the FBI (with extensive attachments) explaining why she believed she was of investigative interest to the agency; reiterating her interest in receiving records about herself; and seeking expedited processing. (Ex. M. to Hardy Decl., ECF No. 15-2, at 51-105.) The FBI assigned the matter Request Number 13747366-001 (see Hardy Decl. ¶ 22), and on June 3, 2016, it sent Willis a letter informing her that it had conducted an additional search based on the information provided in her letter, but still did not locate any responsive records in its main files (see Id. ¶ 22). Willis did not appeal the FBI's no-records response. (See Id. ¶ 22 n.2.)

         3. FOIPA Request Nos. 1380975-000 and 1380990-000

         Willis sent another letter to the FBI on July 26, 2017, in which she sought two additional categories of information. First, she requested copies of her two prior FOIA/Privacy Act requests from 2016, along with any other FOIA/Privacy Act “requests submitted on my, Callen Willis's behalf by any individual other than myself, Callen Willis, ” and she also sought the FBI's responses to those requests. (See Hardy Decl. ¶¶ 25.) The FBI assigned Request No. 1380975-000 to this first aspect of Willis's request (see Id. ¶ 26), and on January 31, 2018, it released 116 pages of responsive records, after having redacted the name of an FBI employee on one page pursuant to Exemption 6 (see Id. ¶ 28; id ¶ 28 n.4).

         The second part of Willis' request of July 26, 2017 (to which the FBI assigned Request No. 1380990-000), sought records pertaining to four events in Willis's life about which she believed the FBI had information: (1) her employment at Columbia University's Irving Cancer Research Center from 2014-2015; (2) the MCAT exam she took in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in January 2015; (3) her hospitalization at Lennox Hill Hospital in January 2015; and (4) her FOIA lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency. (See id. ¶ 29.)[3] On July 31, 2017, the FBI sent Willis a letter advising her that it had conducted “a search of the [Central Records System] . . . and no responsive records were located[.]” (Id. ¶ 31.) Willis did not appeal this no-records response. (See Id. ¶ 31 n.6.)

         C. ...

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