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Humane Society International v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 15, 2019

HUMANE SOCIETY INTERNATIONAL, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE et al., Defendants, and SAFARI CLUB INTERNATIONAL, Defendant-Intervenor.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Timothy J. Kelly United States District Judge.

         Humane Society International, a nonprofit organization that promotes animal conservation and welfare, requested records concerning the import and export of wildlife that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains in its Law Enforcement Management Information System. The agency released the records but redacted certain categories of information under exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act for commercial, private personal, and law enforcement information. In this lawsuit, Humane Society International challenges those redactions as unlawful and asserts a claim under the Administrative Procedure Act, alleging that the agency had previously released these types of information but has changed its practice without adequate explanation. Safari Club International, a nonprofit organization whose members import wildlife, intervened as a defendant to prevent the disclosure of the names of its members in the records at issue.

         The parties have cross-moved for summary judgment. At issue are the two categories of information that the agency redacted from the records it released: (1) the declared monetary value of the wildlife, which the agency withheld as confidential business information under Exemption 4, and (2) the names of individual wildlife importers and exporters, which the agency withheld as private personal information under Exemption 6 and as law enforcement records containing such information under Exemption 7(C). For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny without prejudice Humane Society International's and Defendants' motions for summary judgment as to the withholdings under Exemption 4; grant summary judgment for Defendants and Safari Club International as to the withholdings under Exemption 7(C); and grant summary judgment for Defendants on the Administrative Procedure Act claim.[1]

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. The Law Enforcement Management Information System

         The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), an agency within the Department of the Interior, maintains the Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS), an electronic database that houses information about violations of wildlife regulations, legal and illegal wildlife trade, and declared imports and exports of wildlife. Defs.' SOF ¶¶ 3-5. Law enforcement officers routinely access LEMIS and use it as the portal for gathering and sharing intelligence between law enforcement offices around the country. Id. LEMIS includes information that importers and exporters submit through Form 3-177, the “Declaration for Importation and Exportation of Fish or Wildlife.” Id. ¶ 6. With some narrow exceptions, anyone importing or exporting wildlife products must submit Form 3-177 before doing so. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 23; see also 50 C.F.R. §§ 14.61-64. Form 3-177 requests several categories of information, including the declared monetary value of the wildlife being imported or exported, the name of the U.S. importer or exporter, and the name of the foreign importer or exporter. Defs.' SOF ¶ 8; Pl.'s SOF ¶ 24.

         B. Humane Society International's Freedom of Information Act Requests

         In 2014 and 2015, Humane Society International (HSI) made three requests of FWS under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, seeking records from LEMIS.[2]Pl.'s SOF ¶ 27. In response to each request, FWS released some records but redacted several categories of information in the records. See Vaughn Index. Relevant here, FWS withheld the declared monetary value of the wildlife and the name of the foreign importer or exporter under FOIA Exemption 4, and the name of the U.S. importer or exporter under FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C). Pl.'s SOF ¶ 28. HSI administratively appealed FWS's responses to all three of its FOIA requests but never received a final determination on any of them. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 30.

         C. This Action

         After the constructive denial of its administrative appeals, HSI filed this lawsuit against FWS, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Secretary of the Department of the Interior (collectively, “Defendants”), asserting that the redactions were improper. Compl. ¶¶ 75-85. HSI also brought a claim under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. § 551 et seq., asserting that FWS failed to adequately explain its decision to withhold these categories of information given that on prior occasions it had released them in response to HSI's FOIA requests. Id. ¶¶ 86-92.

         As this case proceeded, FWS released additional information that HSI had requested. See ECF Nos. 14, 18, 22-25, 27. And several months after the complaint was filed, Safari Club International (SCI) filed an unopposed motion to intervene as of right as a defendant, which the Court granted. See ECF No. 16; Minute Order of August 19, 2016.

         FWS's regulations require consultation with those who have submitted information to FWS before it releases any information that may be protected by FOIA Exemption 4 as confidential business information. See 43 C.F.R. §§ 2.29-2.34 (requiring federal agencies to consult submitters before the release of information the agency believes may be protected by Exemption 4). So in late 2016, FWS published a notice in the Federal Register soliciting comments from companies and individuals who had submitted Form 3-177 and whose information was subject to HSI's FOIA requests. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 33; Defs.' SOF ¶¶ 30-31. FWS solicited their views on whether the declared monetary value and name of the foreign importer or exporter on Form 3-177 should be withheld under Exemption 4.[3] See 81 Fed. Reg. 75, 838 (Nov. 1, 2016).

         Out of approximately 12, 000 individuals and entities whose information was at issue, 113 companies and 1, 429 individuals objected to the release of their information. See Defs.' SOF ¶ 33; Pl.'s SOF ¶ 37. The 113 companies asserted that their information at issue was confidential business information covered by Exemption 4. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 37. FWS reviewed these objections and determined that 93 companies had shown that withholding that information under Exemption 4 was warranted. Defs.' SOF ¶¶ 56-57. For the 1, 429 individuals who objected to the release of their information, FWS withheld only their names under Exemptions 6 and 7(C) and released all other categories of the information from the forms they submitted. Id. ¶¶ 35-36, 38. Since then, FWS has clarified that it no longer relies on Exemption 4 to withhold the names of the foreign importers or exporters, but instead relies on Exemptions 6 and 7(C). Defs.' SOF ¶¶ 26-27; Decl. of Hyde-Michaels ¶ 13.

         II. Legal Standards

         FOIA cases are typically resolved on summary judgment motions, which “[t]he court shall grant . . . if the movant shows 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); Brayton v. Office of the U.S. Trade Rep., 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011). A factual dispute is material if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law” and genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986).

         Under FOIA, a federal agency must “disclose information to the public upon reasonable request unless the records at issue fall within specifically delineated exemptions.” Judicial Watch, Inc. v. FBI,522 F.3d 364, 366 (D.C. Cir. 2008). There is a “strong presumption in favor of disclosure, ” which “places the burden on the agency to justify the withholding of any requested documents.” U.S. Dep't of State v. Ray,502 U.S. 164, 173 (1991); Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Wash. v. U.S. Dep't of Justice (CREW I),746 F.3d 1082, 1088 (D.C. Cir. 2014). An agency can meet its burden by submitting affidavits or sworn 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 ...


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