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07/05/77 Consumers Union of the v. Consumer Product Safety

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT


July 5, 1977

CITIZEN'S HEALTH RESEARCH GROUP, APPELLANTS

v.

CONSUMER PRODUCT SAFETY COMMISSION ET AL. 1977.CDC.148 DATE DECIDED: JULY 5, 1977

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

CONSUMERS UNION OF THE UNITED STATES, INC. and PUBLIC

Rehearing Denied August 25, 1977. Vacated January 16, 1978.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (D.C. Civil Action No. 75-0705).

APPELLATE PANEL:

Bazelon, Chief Judge, and Wright and Robinson, Circuit Judges. Opinion for the court filed by Circuit Judge Wright.

DECISION OF THE COURT DELIVERED BY THE HONORABLE JUDGE WRIGHT

We consider here an appeal from a dismissal of an action brought by the appellants under the Freedom of Information Act , 5 U.S.C. § 552 (1970 & Supp. V 1975). They seek to obtain, from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, reports which various television manufacturers have submitted on television-related accidents.

For the reasons stated below, we reverse the District Court's dismissal of the plaintiffs' action and remand the case for further proceedings. I. THE PARTIES

Appellant Consumers Union is a nonprofit consumer organization. It provides information - through its monthly magazine Consumer Reports and through other means - on the merits, defects, dangers, and comparative efficacy of consumer goods, including television sets. Appellant Public Citizen, also a nonprofit organization, funds the Health Research Group which conducts research and publishes information for consumers relating to potential hazards to health and safety from consumer products.

Appellee Consumer Product Safety Commission is an independent regulatory agency established by Congress in 1972 pursuant to its enactment of the Consumer Product Safety Act, 15 U.S.C. § 2051 et seq. (Supp. V 1975). The Commission's purpose is to help implement the Act's policy of establishing "comprehensive and effective regulation over the safety of unreasonably hazardous consumer products." *fn1 Several of the officers of the Commission and 12 companies that manufacture television sets and do business in the District of Columbia were, together with the Commission, also named as defendants below and are also appellees before this court. II. BACKGROUND

The background of the present impasse is extensive and, in some respects, complex. In March 1974 the Commission issued a public notice*fn2 announcing that it would hold a public hearing to investigate hazards encountered during operation of television receivers and to consider the necessity of developing safety standards for such receivers. In the notice the Commission requested certain technical information and data on television-related accidents from manufacturers of television sets and component parts. In particular the Commission requested that the manufacturers submit all accident reports collected since the National Commission on Product Safety held hearings on the subject in 1969.*fn3 Although a few manufacturers complied with the Commission's request, the principal response consisted of a six-page summary of accident data supplied by the Electronics Industry Association .

After reviewing the data voluntarily submitted, the Commission concluded that the "information submitted to the Commission by the EIA on behalf of the [companies did] not satisfy the Commission's request."*fn4 Accordingly, on May 13, 1974 the Commission, acting pursuant to 15 U.S.C. § 2076(b)(1) (Supp. V 1975), sent special orders to 25 manufacturers seeking specified information.*fn5 In the cover letter accompanying the special orders the Commission noted the possibility of a request for public access to this information via the FOIA, and the manufacturers were instructed to identify data claimed to be exempt from public disclosure and to substantiate any such claims. Claims of confidentiality accompanied the responses of most manufacturers. Again the Commission reviewed the submitted data and again the Commission found that certain of the manufacturers had not complied with the request. Thus on July 26, 1974 subpoenas duces tecum were issued to the appellee manufacturers and three other manufacturers*fn6 requiring production of specified technical information and all television-related accident data.

Appellants' first request for access, under the FOIA, to data submitted by the manufacturers was in June 1974 and pertained to the documents submitted in response to the Commission's special orders of the previous month.*fn7 Although appellants were given access to those reports for which confidentiality was not claimed by the manufacturers, they were not allowed access to documents which the manufacturers claimed were exempt from the FOIA.*fn8 Instead, in August 1974 the Commission informed the manufacturers of appellants' FOIA request and again directed the manufacturers to substantiate their claims of confidentiality. The Commission also extended appellants' FOIA request to the additional data which the Commission later subpoenaed from the manufacturers.*fn9

Appellants subsequently limited their request to exclude documents protected by the attorney-client privilege or the work product doctrine and those portions of documents that contained names and addresses of accident victims. Even with this limitation, however, appellants' request went unfulfilled.*fn10 In October 1974, therefore, four months after their initial request, appellants informed the Commission that they would consider any further delay to be a denial. As a result of that communication, representatives of appellants and the Commission met in November 1974 and agreed upon a timetable for completion of the Commission's review of the manufacturers' submissions. It was estimated that the Commission's legal determination as to availability of the requested documents would be completed by mid-March of 1975. Appellants acquiesced in that timetable, but expressly reserved the right to consider additional delay as a denial of their request.*fn11

On March 28, 1975 - nine months after appellants' initial request - the Commission issued its legal determination that the documents requested by appellants did not fall within the exemptions of the FOIA. It also stated that, even if the data were exempt from mandatory disclosure, disclosure by the Commission was nonetheless within its discretion and, in this case, appropriate in the interest of public health and safety.*fn12 The Commission subsequently notified the television manufacturers of its decision to release the requested documents on May 1, 1975. After receiving that notice, seven of the manufacturers filed separate actions against the Commission in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware, each seeking an injunction prohibiting disclosure on the ground that release of the documents is barred by the exemptions to the FOIA and certain portions of the Consumer Product Safety Act, 15 U.S.C. § 2051 et seq. (Supp. V 1975).*fn13 Five other television manufacturers filed similar separate actions in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,*fn14 the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, *fn15 and the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.*fn16 In all of the actions the manufacturers applied for temporary restraining orders prohibiting release of the documents pending determination of their motions for preliminary injunctions. The Commission consented to the temporary restraining orders in at least some of the cases.*fn17 Subsequently the individual actions filed by the television manufacturers were consolidated in the District of Delaware.*fn18 Even though Rule 65(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure has been held to limit the duration of temporary restraining orders to a total of 20 days, absent consent by the party against whom the order was directed, Sims v. Greene, 160 F.2d 512, 516 (3d Cir. 1947), the Commission did not object to requests for further extensions of the temporary restraining orders, with the result that oral argument on the manufacturers' preliminary injunction motions was not heard until July 23, and the stays against the Commission's releasing the information continued until those motions were decided. A preliminary injunction, which the Commission did oppose, was entered on October 23, 1975, prohibiting production of the data.*fn19 For whatever reason, the appellants did not seek to intervene in this action either to contest the manufacturers in Delaware or to have the action transferred to the District of Columbia. And despite full awareness of appellants' requests for access to the documents, neither the manufacturers nor the Commission even attempted to include appellants as parties or to transfer the cases to the District of Columbia where appellants could readily be joined. Furthermore, though the submissions by the Commission in Delaware plainly put that court on notice of the interest of appellants in release of the documents, the court did not on its own motion inquire about the necessity of joining appellants under Rule 19, FED. R. CIV. P.

After the District Court for the District of Delaware entered the preliminary injunction, the Commission filed an interlocutory appeal. The Commission subsequently filed a voluntary motion for dismissal of the appeal, however, and on May 10, 1976 the motion was granted. *fn20 On August 20, 1976 the District Court "closed out" the case with no further action planned. III. THE DECISION BELOW

The instant FOIA litigation was filed in the District Court for the District of Columbia on May 5, 1975 and appellants promptly moved for summary judgment. The Commission and the manufacturers, however, moved to dismiss this action on the ground that no case or controversy existed between appellants and the Commission or, in the alternative, to stay the proceedings pending the decision in Delaware.

Four months later and 15 months after appellants initially asked the Commission for access to the documents, the District Court, without oral argument, filed an opinion and entered an order dismissing the action.*fn21 The District Court concluded that between appellants and the Commission there was no case or controversy since "on the crucial issue in this case" - the claim that the documents are subject to mandatory disclosure under the FOIA - appellants and the Commission "came to the exact same conclusion": that the documents had to be disclosed.*fn22 The only reason the Commission was not disclosing the documents, according to the court, was that it was prevented from doing so -first by the several temporary restraining orders and then by the preliminary injunction issued by the District Court for the District of Delaware. The court further concluded that, between appellants and the manufacturers, there was a failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.*fn23 IV. THE ISSUES ON APPEAL

We conclude that the District Court erred, and that there is a case or controversy*fn24 between appellants and the Commission. At its narrowest compass the case or controversy to be resolved concerns the threshold question of the scope and effect of the proceedings in Delaware. The Commission, echoed by the manufacturers, renews on appeal its argument - accepted by the District Court - that, although it would like to provide appellants with the requested documents, the preliminary injunction entered by the Delaware District Court unequivocally precludes it from doing so. Appellants disagree and deny that the preliminary injunction entered in Delaware absolves the Commission of what they believe is the Commission's statutory duty to furnish the requested documents.

This substantial and extensively argued disagreement among the parties to this action fully satisfies the Article III case or controversy requirement.*fn25 The scope and effect of a prior judgment are always legitimate subjects of argument and resolution in a subsequent action,*fn26 and the judgment entered by the Delaware District Court suggests no reason why it should be considered an exception.

Moreover, the Commission's conduct of the Delaware litigation provides a second, independent reason for rejecting appellees' contention that a case or controversy is lacking. In fact, reviewing both the administrative and litigational prelude to the instant appeal, the Commission's conduct, in several instances, is not easily reconcilable with its ostensible acceptance of appellants' argument that the requested documents should be disclosed.*fn27 On the basis of this record, we cannot believe that the Commission and the appellants lack the degree of adverseness necessary under the Constitution.

The existence of a case or controversy having been established, we must next consider its merits. That is, we must consider whether the Commission and the manufacturers or, alternatively, the appellants are correct in their assessment of the legal effect on this action of the Delaware judgment. At first glance appellees' position seems strong. The Delaware District Court preliminarily enjoined the Commission from releasing the contested documents, and that injunction has not been modified in any manner. It would thus appear that appellants' request may indeed be foreclosed.

Yet the correctness of this conclusion, toward which the Commission and the manufacturers urge us so enthusiastically, is not nearly as obvious as they would have us believe. The procedural history of the Delaware proceeding - as adduced by the District Court, as well as in the appellate briefs and at oral argument - is troubling and belies the apparent soundness of appellees' position. There is, first, the obvious and important fact that the Delaware District Court never did resolve the merits of the manufacturers' claim that the contested documents should not be released. Rather, the court limited itself to preliminarily enjoining the Commission from releasing the documents in dispute.*fn28 The opinion accompanying the injunctive order unmistakably confined itself to the propriety of relief pendente lite.*fn29 An order of that type is only "a conservative measure intended . . . to save all rights until the merits of the controversy can be definitely ascertained . . .. It is not an adjudication of rights in any proper sense of the term . . . [and] it does not follow that the final adjudication will be in accordance with the interlocutory order." *fn30

Standing alone the preliminary injunction, despite its impact on the agency, could not bar the FOIA action instituted by appellants in the District of Columbia. It would, of course, weigh heavily in any decision as to which of the two suits ought, "giving regard to conservation of judicial resources and comprehensive disposition of litigation," *fn31 to be stayed or enjoined pending the outcome of the other. *fn32 Here, however, there is no occasion to engage in the balancing that would ordinarily attend such a situation, for nearly a year after entry of the preliminary injunction the Delaware court entered an order "closing out" the case with no further action planned.

While the "close-out" language employed by the Delaware court finds no parallel in either that court's rules or the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, it does evince an understanding - apparently shared by the parties before it - that the suit had run its course. No one implies that any intervening determination on the merits has converted the interlocutory relief into a permanent injunction; *fn33 such other possible interpretations of the Delaware court's order as suggest themselves tend toward the conclusion that, although the reverse FOIA action was not dismissed in form, it was dismissed in fact, and by acquiescence of the parties the matter was dropped.

With that, the preliminary injunction is dead. *fn34 When there is no prospect of an adjudication of the merits, relief that purports to be temporary, pending such an adjudication, is obviously superfluous. Whether this "closing out" acknowledges an informal - or even tacit - "settlement" between the Delaware plaintiffs and the Commission we need not inquire, since if it did such a settlement would be void as against public policy. *fn35 Thus the preliminary injunction need hardly be considered an insuperable barrier to the suit at bar.

Besides the absence of a disposition on the merits, the Commission's conduct of the Delaware litigation is a second factor that makes us reluctant to accept, without more, the contention that the Delaware proceedings preclude appellants' suit here. As described above, *fn36 the Commission was, in several respects, less than vigilant in espousing its putative view that the requested documents should be disclosed.

Yet another, related reason for declining to give the Delaware judgment the preemptive effect that appellees argue it deserves is the absence from the Delaware proceedings of any party requesting disclosure. Not only were the appellants in this case not participants in that suit, neither was any other private party besides the manufacturers. Given the Government's peculiar approach to those proceedings, therefore, the pro-disclosure position was all but unrepresented. This important consideration further attenuates any claim that the preliminary injunction is binding on appellants here. V. HOLDING

Accordingly, we remand this case to the District Court for the District of Columbia. *fn37 The issue on remand will be, quite simply, whether or not the documents should in fact be disclosed. In resolving this issue the District Court for the District of Columbia offers a peculiarly appropriate forum. The party that possesses the requested information (i.e., the Commission), the parties that requested the information (Consumers Union and Public Citizens), and the parties that supplied the information (the manufacturers) are all joined in the suit and are ready to present their respective views on the merits. We find no constitutional or procedural bar to adjudication.

Reversed and remanded.

CASE RESOLUTION

Reversed and remanded.


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