United States District Court, District of Columbia
OPINION AND ORDER
CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits
discrimination based on sex in programs and activities that
receive federal funding. See 20 U.S.C. §
1681(a). As part of its responsibility to enforce Title IX,
the Department of Education, through its Office of Civil
Rights (“OCR”), investigates whether covered
school districts are adequately responding to sexual assault
complaints by students. When OCR completes an investigation,
it sends a “resolution letter” to the relevant
school or school district documenting its findings.
media outlet BuzzFeed lodged two Freedom of Information Act
(“FOIA”) requests with the Department of
Education for resolution letters sent by OCR to fourteen
separate schools or districts across the country. BuzzFeed
seeks the documents to assess the agency's Title IX
enforcement efforts. When the Department failed to release
the requested letters within statutory deadlines, BuzzFeed
sued. The Department then released the letters in redacted
form. Both sides now move for summary judgment. The sole
issue raised in the motions is the propriety of the
Department's redactions. The agency maintains they are
necessary to protect the privacy of those involved in the
investigations. BuzzFeed accepts that some of the redactions
are appropriate but complains that others unduly obscure
whether OCR is fulfilling its enforcement obligations.
BuzzFeed's request, the Court has examined the complete,
unredacted resolution letters in camera. Based on
that review, the Court finds that the agency's approach
to redacting the letters appears to be inconsistent and that
the redactions to two of the letters are significantly
overbroad. The Court will not fly-speck particular
redactions, however. It will instead deny each side's
summary judgment motion without prejudice and remand the
requests to the Department for reprocessing in a manner
consistent with this ruling. The parties may renew their
motions if BuzzFeed believes the re-produced letters are
still too-heavily redacted.
* * *
Court will dispense with reciting the general legal standards
governing FOIA litigation, which the parties well know. The
Department invokes FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C) to justify its
redactions. Exemption 6 covers “personnel and medical
files and similar files the disclosure of which would
constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal
privacy.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). Exemption 7(C)
covers “records or information compiled for law
enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the
production of such law enforcement records or information . .
. could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted
invasion of personal privacy.” Id. §
552(b)(7)(C). If the Court determines that a privacy interest
exists under one of the two exemptions, it “must
balance ‘the privacy interests that would be
compromised by disclosure against the public interest in
release of the requested information.'” King
& Spalding LLP v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human
Servs., 330 F.Supp.3d 477, 497 (D.D.C. 2018) (quoting
Davis v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 968 F.2d 1276,
1281 (D.C. Cir. 1992)).
agency invokes both Exemptions 6 and 7(C), courts
“focus” on Exemption 7(C) because it
“establishes a lower bar for withholding
material.” Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics
in Washington v. Dep't of Justice, 746 F.3d 1082,
1091 n.2 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Because BuzzFeed does not dispute that the records are tied
to the Department's law enforcement efforts, the Court
has “no need to consider Exemption 6 separately because
all information that would fall within the scope of Exemption
6 would also be immune from disclosure under Exemption
7(C).” Rosenberg v. U.S. Dep't of Immigration
& Customs Enf't, 13 F.Supp.3d 92, 106 (D.D.C.
2014) (citing Roth v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 642
F.3d 1161, 1173 (D.C. Cir. 2011)).
privacy interest that Exemption 7(C) protects
“encompass[es] the individual's control of
information concerning his or her person, ” U.S.
Dep't of Justice v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the
Press, 489 U.S. 749, 763 (1989), including “when,
how, and to what extent information about them is
communicated to others, ” id. at 764 n.16.
This includes personally identifiable information
(“PII”), traditionally consisting of names,
addresses, dates of birth, and other specific information
reasonably likely to reveal a person's identity. See,
e.g., SafeCard Servs., Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d
1197, 1206 (D.C. Cir. 1991). The interest goes further, too.
When “the mosaic effect of disclosure of pieces of
information could potentially lead to the identification of
the third parties, ” that information becomes
redactable PII as well. Rosenberg, 13 F.Supp.3d at
106. When Exemption 7(C) is invoked, the agency can
“withhold only the specific information to which it
applies, not the entire page or document in which the
information appears; any non-exempt information must be
segregated and released[.]” Mays v. DEA, 234
F.3d 1324, 1327 (D.C. Cir. 2000).
conducting an in camera review of each document and
considering each redaction in light of the case law and the
circumstances of each school or district, the Court concludes
that while some of the redactions are appropriate, others are
improperly broad. Many of the redactions protect traditional
PII including dates or highly specific details that would
allow identification of individuals involved in the
underlying events that were investigated. See
Rosenberg, 13 F.Supp.3d at 106; Farese v. U.S.
Dep't of Justice, 683 F.Supp. 273, 275 (D.D.C. 1987)
(holding that dates of entry into a program, when revealed
among other information, could allow for identification of
witnesses, thus justifying redaction). For example, the
resolution letters to the Imagine Prep School in Arizona and
Adams County School District 12 in Colorado, both prepared by
an official at OCR Denver, were minimally redacted and appear
to appropriately balance the privacy interests of individuals
involved (such as the dates of the allegations or other
information specific enough to constitute PII) with the
public's interest in learning how OCR responded to the
discrimination complaint and what its investigation found.
See Declaration of David Sumners ¶ 3, ECF No.
15-5; Plaintiff's Statement of Undisputed Facts
(“Pl. Facts”) Ex. A, ECF No. 17-2; Pl. Facts Ex.
B, ECF No. 17-3.
other hand, the letters to East St. Louis, Illinois School
District 189 and the Baraboo School District in Wisconsin,
for example-both redacted by an official in OCR's Chicago
office-have pages-long redactions. See Declaration
of Lauren Skerrett, ECF No. 15-3, ¶¶ 7, 9; Pl.
Facts Ex. C, ECF No. 17-4; Pl. Facts Ex. F, ECF No. 17-7. To
the Court's eye, the redactions in these letters conceal
significant amounts of information beyond the scope of either
Exemptions 6 or 7(C). These redactions hide details too
general to allow for identification of individuals involved
(particularly given the relatively large size of the
districts), including information about the investigation
that is not PII at all. For example, both letters include
redacted discussions of OCR's legal conclusions, as well
as general details of how the school districts themselves
investigated and responded to the complaints. If revealed,
these details would illuminate OCR's work but would not
risk identifying those involved in the underlying incidents.
FOIA protects “threats to privacy interests more
palpable than mere possibilities.” Dep't of Air
Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 380 n.19 (1976). The
government offers no basis for the Court to conclude that the
risk of identification here rises to that level. Further,
because these redactions withhold substantial details about
the OCR's Title IX investigations, they undermine
“the citizens' right to be informed about what
‘their government is up to, '” making the
public interest in revealing much of the redacted information
high. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 489
U.S. at 773.
Court appreciates that these resolution letters deal with a
sensitive subject and the agency must be careful not to
reveal details that would expose the identities of those
involved, either directly or indirectly. By the same token,
BuzzFeed (and the public) has a right to examine how OCR is
conducting these sensitive investigations. Exemptions 6 and
7(c) call for careful balancing when redacting information,
demanding a scalpel rather than a buzzsaw. While some OCR
officials were appropriately careful in their redactions,
others were too aggressive. As a result, the Court will
remand the matter to the agency to reprocess the records and
narrow the redactions where necessary.
foregoing reasons, it is hereby
that  Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is
DENIED without prejudice. It is further
that the  Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment is