United States District Court, District of Columbia
TIMOTHY J. KELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Jermaine Bell, proceeding pro se, filed this lawsuit
under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. §
552, seeking records from Defendant Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) relating to the
murders of four individuals, including certain interview
reports relating to a federal and state task force involving
Baltimore Police Department officers. ECF No. 1 at 1-2. At
least three of those murders appear related to conduct for
which Bell was prosecuted in the District of Maryland, and
for which he is now incarcerated. Id. at 6. After
the Court denied both Plaintiffs and Defendant's motions
for summary judgment, ECF No. 25, Defendant filed a second
motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 30. Bell has not
responded to that motion, nor has he made any filings in this
litigation for almost a year. For the reasons explained
below, the Court will grant ATF's motion for summary
Factual and Procedural Background
made his FOIA request in 2015, asking ATF for records
regarding the 2001 murders of Torrence Johnson, Angelo
Stringfellow, and Kenyatta Harris, and the 1998 murder of
Damien Barralle. ECF No. 13-3 at 1-2. ATF queried its two
databases, using the names of the individuals as search
terms, ECF No. 30-1 ¶ 8,  and responded that because the
request concerned third parties, Bell would need to provide
either consent or proof of death of the third parties-who
were murder victims. ECF No. 13-3 at 4-5. Bell appealed to
the Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy
(OIP), noting that the fact of the 2001 murder victims'
death was in the public record as a result of his own federal
trial. See Id. at 8-12. OIP remanded Bell's
request, instructing ATF to search for responsive records.
ECF No. 30-1 ¶ 12. ATF did so and told Bell that no such
records existed. Id. ¶¶ 13-14; ECF No.
13-3 at 25-26. Bell, finding this state of affairs
implausible, asked ATF to search again, providing his case
number and documents from his case to help focus the
agency's search. ECF No. 13-3 at 27-36. This time, ATF
searched Bell's case number and another relevant case
number-that of the Tyree Stewart investigation, which the
disclosure specialist found in the unredacted version of
Bell's case file. ECF No. 30-1 ¶¶ 17-19.
Because the Tyree Stewart investigation was still ongoing at
that time, ATF denied Bell's request based on FOIA
Exemption 7(A), which protects “records or information
compiled for law enforcement purposes” which
“could reasonably be expected to interfere with
enforcement proceedings.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(A);
ECF No. 13-3 at 38-39. Bell appealed the denial, which was
affirmed by OIP. ECF No. 30-1 ¶¶ 22-23.
filed this suit in June 2017. Upon reviewing the Tyree
Stewart file in connection with this litigation, ATF learned
that the previously open investigation was now closed, and so
Exemption 7(A) was no longer applicable. See Id.
¶ 24; Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in
Washington v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 746 F.3d 1082,
1096-98 (D.C. Cir. 2014). ATF produced to Bell a portion of
one responsive, partially redacted document which referenced
the murder of Kenyatta Harris. ECF No. 30-1 ¶¶
25-28. ATF justified its redactions by references to FOIA
Exemption 6, which protects “personnel and medical
files and similar files the disclosure of which would
constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal
privacy, ” 5 USC § 552(b)(6), and Exemption 7(C),
which protects “records or information compiled for law
enforcement purposes” that “could reasonably be
expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal
privacy, ” 5 USC § 552(b)(7)(C). Both parties
moved for summary judgment, and in February 2019 the Court
denied both motions, holding that on the record before it at
that time, it could not determine whether ATF had conducted
an adequate search or whether its withholdings were proper.
ECF No. 25.
ATF conducted a new search, manually reviewing Bell's
investigation file and the Stewart investigation file. ECF
No. 30-1 ¶¶ 32, 34-35. This search revealed a new
responsive document, as well as an additional responsive part
of the document previously provided to Bell. Id.
¶¶ 34-35. Further, ATF again queried its two
databases, this time using as search terms the names of each
of the murder victims as well as Bell's name. This search
produced no new results. Id. ¶ 37. In total,
ATF produced three documents-the newly discovered document, a
fuller version of the previously produced document, and a
document from Bell's own investigation file, which had
been previously produced to him in his criminal case.
Id. ¶¶ 33-35, 38. The documents total
eleven pages, all of which are partially redacted pursuant to
FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C). Id. ¶ 38; ECF No.
30-2 at 15-29. In July 2019, ATF filed a renewed motion for
summary judgment, ECF No. 30, to which Bell has not
responded. Bell's last filing in this matter occurred
almost a year ago, in January 2019.
judgment is appropriately granted when, viewing the evidence
in the light most favorable to the non-movants and drawing
all reasonable inferences accordingly, no reasonable jury
could reach a verdict in their favor.” Lopez v.
Council on Am.-Islamic Relations Action Network, Inc.,
826 F.3d 492, 496 (D.C. Cir. 2016). “The evidence
presented must show ‘that there is no genuine dispute
as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law.'” Id.
(quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). Where, as here, a summary
judgment motion is unopposed, the Court may not grant it as
conceded but instead must determine whether the moving party
has carried its burden. See Winston & Strawn, LLP v.
McLean, 843 F.3d 503, 505 (D.C. Cir. 2016).
the FOIA context, a district court reviewing a motion for
summary judgment conducts a de novo review of the record, and
the responding federal agency bears the burden of proving
that it has complied with its obligations under the
FOIA.” MacLeod v. DHS, No. 15-CV-1792 (KBJ),
2017 WL 4220398, at *6 (D.D.C. Sept. 21, 2017) (citing 5
U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B)); see also Cable News Network,
Inc. v. FBI, 271 F.Supp.3d 108, 111 (D.D.C. 2017)
(“Unlike the review of other agency action that must be
upheld if supported by substantial evidence and not arbitrary
or capricious, the FOIA expressly places the burden on the
agency to sustain its action . . . .” (internal
quotation marks omitted) (quoting Dep't of Justice v.
Reporters Comm. for Freedom of Press, 489 U.S. 749, 775
(1989))). In order to prevail on summary judgment in a FOIA
case, “an ‘agency must show that it made a good
faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records,
using methods which can be reasonably expected to produce the
information requested,' which it can do by submitting
‘[a] reasonably detailed affidavit, setting forth the
search terms and the type of search performed, and averring
that all files likely to contain responsive materials (if
such records exist) were searched.'” Reporters
Comm. for Freedom of Press v. FBI, 877 F.3d
399, 402 (D.C. Cir 2017) (quoting Oglesby v. U.S.
Dep't of Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990)). In
addition to showing that the search was adequate, the agency
must “demonstrate that . . . records have not been
‘improperly withheld.'” Ctr. for Study of
Servs. v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs.,
874 F.3d 287, 288 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (quoting U.S.
Dep't of Justice v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 142
& n.3 (1989)). Finally, the Court has an affirmative duty
to ensure that “[a]ny reasonably segregable portion of
the record” is provided to the requestor “after
deletion of the portions which are exempt.” 5 U.S.C.
§ 552(b); see Morley v. CIA, 508 F.3d 1108,
1123 (D.C. Cir. 2007).
Court is satisfied that ATF has conducted an adequate search
for responsive records, that the agency's redactions
pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C) were proper, and that
ATF released all reasonably segregable portions of the
Adequacy of ATF's Search
prior order, the Court stated that it could not determine
whether ATF's search had been adequate due to the
relative paucity of information about how the search and
subsequent review of documents had been conducted. ECF No. 25
at 3-4. ATF has now cured this deficiency. First, Disclosure
Chief Stiple explains that ATF conducted its searches in
“the two systems of records where ATF records of
criminal investigations are housed, ” and that ATF does
not have or use other record systems “likely to have
records of specific criminal investigations undertaken by or
involving the ATF.” ECF No. 30-2 ¶ 4; see
Oglesby, 920 F.2d at 68. Second, Stiple explains that
ATF queried its databases with the names of each of the
murder victims, as well as Bell's name. ECF No. 30-2
¶¶ 8 & n.2, 18; see ECF No. 25 at 4
(noting that a search for Bell's name might be reasonably
expected to produce additional responsive records). Finally,
Stiple explains that in its supplemental search, ATF manually
searched the two investigation files which were previously
found to contain responsive information-the Bell file and the
Stewart file-to determine whether they contained any
additional responsive information. ECF No. 30-2 ¶¶
15-16. In light of ATF's supplemental searches, which did
yield additional responsive documents, and its description of
the types of searches performed and the search terms used,
the Court agrees that ATF has “conducted a search of
records systems reasonably likely to contain responsive
information using search methods that were reasonably
designed to locate such information.” Id.
¶ 20; see Reporters Comm., 877 F.3d at 402.