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Brown v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

decided: August 24, 1981.


Plaintiff appeals from a memorandum decision and order of the District Court for the Northern District of New York, McCurn, J., granting summary judgment to defendants. Affirmed .

Before Oakes and Kearse, Circuit Judges, and Re,*fn* Chief Judge.

Author: RE

This is an appeal from a judgment of Judge McCurn of the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, which granted summary judgment to the defendant-respondent, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and which dismissed the plaintiff-appellant, Mr. Brown's complaint. Plaintiff-appellant, Brown, sought an order directing the F.B.I. to disclose to the plaintiff certain information concerning a Ms. Shepardson, pursuant to a request made under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552. Since we agree with the judgment of the District Court, we affirm.

On September 16, 1976, Gerald Brown, the plaintiff in this action, was convicted in the U. S. District Court of kidnapping Mary Shepardson. As the victim of the kidnapping, Ms. Shepardson was a key prosecution witness at the trial. Mr. Brown's conviction was affirmed on appeal*fn1 and he is currently serving a 25-year sentence.

On September 10, 1979, Mr. Brown submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the F.B.I., which sought access to any information in its files, concerning monetary or other benefits received by Ms. Shepardson in return for her testimony; her involvement in the government's Witness Protection Program; information as to the custody of Ms. Shepardson's children; Ms. Shepardson's criminal record; and any information relating to her possible involvement with illegal drugs.

The F.B.I. denied this request, explaining that the information sought was personal to Ms. Shepardson; its release without her consent was prohibited by the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a; and that there was insufficient public interest in the information requested to require its disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr. Brown appealed the denial of his request to the Department of Justice. In denying his appeal, the Department informed him that the only F.B.I. records indexed to Ms. Shepardson were those dealing with the initial kidnapping investigation. Mr. Brown next sought an order from the District Court for the Northern District of New York, permitting access to the requested records. The F.B.I., in its answer, stated that the information had been properly withheld because its disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of Ms. Shepardson's privacy, and cross-moved for dismissal.

Plaintiff subsequently moved for an order requiring the defendants to provide a detailed justification for withholding the requested information, including an itemization and index which would correlate specific statements in the justification with actual portions of the requested documents.

The F.B.I. opposed the motion, contending that the requested information was exempt from FOIA disclosure under 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6) which exempts from disclosure "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy"; and also under 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7) which exempts from disclosure "investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes ... to the extent that the production of such records would ... constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The F.B.I. further contended that, even if the requested records were not exempted from disclosure under the FOIA, it was prohibited by the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a(b), from disclosing that information without the consent of the individual to whom it pertained.

Mr. Brown also requested that the court conduct an in camera inspection of the disputed records. The court denied this request, holding that the F.B.I.'s sworn affidavits constituted a sufficiently detailed justification for its refusal to disclose. Treating the F.B.I.'s cross motion to dismiss as one for summary judgment, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the F.B.I.

The question presented in this appeal is whether the District Court properly reviewed the F.B.I.'s refusal to disclose the requested information. Mr. Brown contends that the District Court erred in three respects; first, in denying his motion for a detailed justification of the claimed exemption; second, in denying his motion for an in camera inspection; and, third, in its interpretation of the claimed FOIA disclosure exemptions under 5 U.S.C. §§ 552(b)(6) and 552(b)(7).

When a government agency receives a request for information of a personal nature, pertaining to a person other than the one making the request, the agency must reconcile two conflicting duties: the duty to make available to the public the information in its possession; and the duty to safeguard the privacy of individual members of the public. These duties are enunciated in the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, and the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a.

The Freedom of Information Act, and the judicial decisions which interpret and apply it, evidence a strong public policy in favor of public access to information in the possession of federal agencies. See Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 96 S. Ct. 1592, 48 L. Ed. 2d 11 (1976); E. P. A. v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73, 93 S. Ct. 827, 35 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1973). In keeping with this policy, the FOIA clearly specifies that when an agency withholds requested information "the burden is on the agency to sustain its action." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4) (B). This is a necessary aspect of FOIA litigation because, in the typical case, only the agency knows the exact nature of the documents being withheld. See Ray v. Turner, 190 U.S. App. D.C. 290, 587 F.2d 1187 (D.C.Cir.1978); Mead Data Cent., Inc. v. U. S. Dept. of Air Force, 184 U.S. App. D.C. 350, 566 F.2d 242 (D.C.Cir.1977), Vaughn v. Rosen, 157 U.S. App. D.C. 340, 484 F.2d 820 (D.C.Cir.1973), cert. denied, 415 U.S. 977, 94 S. Ct. 1564, 39 L. Ed. 2d 873 (1974). The party seeking to obtain documents usually can only speculate on their contents.

In an effort to compensate for this obvious disadvantage, courts have required agencies to itemize and index the documents requested, segregate their disclosable and non-disclosable portions, and correlate each non-disclosable portion with the FOIA provision which exempts it from disclosure. This procedure is intended to restore the adversarial balance needed to allow the court to reach a just and fair result. See Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d at 824. It has been recognized, however, that the itemizing and indexing of documents "are not ends in themselves, but only means by which an FOIA plaintiff gains the ability "to present its case effectively' ". Information Acquisition Corp. v. Dept. of Justice, 444 F. Supp. 458, 462 (D.D.C.1978), quoting, Mead Data, 566 F.2d at 251. Thus, when the facts in plaintiff's possession are sufficient to allow an effective presentation of its case, an itemized and indexed justification of the specificity contemplated by Vaughn may be unnecessary. The District Court ...

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