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Kuzma v. United States Department of Justice

United States District Court, W.D. New York

September 29, 2014

MICHAEL KUZMA, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant.

DECISION AND ORDER

WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

In this action, Plaintiff Michael Kuzma, a local attorney, challenges Defendant United States Department of Justice's response to his request for records pertaining to the Occupy Buffalo Movement, [1] which he submitted under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 ("FOIA").

Presently before this Court are the parties' competing Motions for Summary Judgment, brought under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket Nos. 16, 23.) For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's motion is denied.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Plaintiff's FOIA Request

The facts concerning Plaintiff's FOIA request are not in dispute.[2]

On January 31, 2012, Plaintiff submitted a FOIA request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation seeking copies of all records pertaining to the Occupy Buffalo Movement. (Defendant's Rule 56 Statement of Undisputed Facts ("Defendant's Statement"), Docket No. 17, ¶ 2.) The FBI responded by letter dated February 6, 2012, wherein it acknowledged receipt of Plaintiff's request and advised that a search for responsive documents in the Central Records System ("CRS") was underway. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 3.)

But the FBI failed to respond to Plaintiff's request within the statutorily mandated 20 working days, [3] which prompted Plaintiff to appeal to the Office of Information Policy ("OIP) on April 27, 2012. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 4.) OIP acknowledged receipt of Plaintiff's appeal on May 7, 2012. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 5.)

On May 21, 2012, the FBI notified Plaintiff that an analyst was reviewing his request. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 6.) Approximately two months later, OIP informed Plaintiff that it had denied his appeal, because the FBI had not yet made an adverse determination that it could review. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 7.) And although it noted that the FBI was processing his request, OIP further advised Plaintiff that the FOIA authorizes a requester to file a federal lawsuit when an agency takes longer than the statutory time period to respond to a request. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 7.)

Plaintiff subsequently filed suit in this court on August 27, 2012. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 8; Docket No. 1.) Less than one month later, on September 14, 2012, the FBI notified Plaintiff that it had discovered five pages of records responsive to his request but was withholding them in their entirety under certain FOIA exemptions. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 9.) The notification was sent by David M. Hardy, Section Chief of the Record/Information Dissemination Section, Records Management Division, FBI. (Defendant's Statement, Exhibit G.)

On February 19, 2013, Defendant filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment, along with its Vaughn index.[4] (Docket Nos. 16, 16-1, 26.) The Vaughn index (comprised of the Declaration of David M. Hardy ("Hardy Decl.") and the Supplemental Declaration of David M. Hardy ("Supp. Hardy Decl.")) explains Defendant's search for records and withholding of responsive information under the exemptions in 5 U.S.C. §§ 552(b)(6), (b)(7)(C), (b)(7)(D), and (b)(7)(E).[5] Plaintiff cross moved for summary judgment on April 22, 2013. (Docket No. 23.) After full briefing, which concluded on May 29, 2013, this Court took the motions under advisement without oral argument.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

Under the FOIA, "every federal agency is required... to make its records promptly available to any person' upon receipt of a reasonably articulated request." Phillips v. Immigration & Customs Enforcement , 385 F.Supp.2d 296, 301 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)). The FOIA embodies Congress's desire that an open government allow for "an informed citizenry' to hold the governors accountable to the governed.'" Grand Cent. P'ship, Inc. v. Cuomo , 166 F.3d 473, 478 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal quotations and citations omitted); Phillips, 385 F.Supp. at 301 ("FOIA reflects a strong Congressional policy of requiring full public disclosure of documents and records maintained by federal agencies."). To that end, the FOIA requires the fullest possible public disclosure of government-kept records yet at the same time maintains the confidentiality of sensitive information based on narrowly tailored exemptions intended to protect certain interests.

Federal courts are required to conduct de novo review of an agency's decision to withhold requested records under the FOIA. Massey v. FBI , 3 F.3d 620, 622 (2d Cir. 1993). The preferred method of doing so is by summary judgment. See Fox News Network, LLC v. U.S. Dep't of the Treasury , 739 F.Supp.2d 515, 532 (S.D.N.Y. 2010); Jones-Edwards v. Appeal Bd. of NSA , 352 F.Supp.2d 420, 423 (S.D.N.Y. 2005).

Summary judgment is appropriate 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). A fact is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). An issue of material fact is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id.

In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the evidence and the inferences drawn from the evidence must be "viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Addickes v. S.H. Kress and Co. , 398 U.S. 144, 158-59, 90 S.Ct.1598, 1609, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970). "Only when reasonable minds could not differ as to the import of evidence is summary judgment proper." Bryant v. Maffucci , 923 F.2d 979, 982 (2d Cir. 1991).

A plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment in a FOIA case "when an agency seeks to protect material which, even on the agency's version of the facts, falls outside the proffered exemption." New York Times Co. v. U.S. Dep't of Def. , 499 F.Supp.2d 501, 509 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).

Conversely, an agency is entitled to summary judgment when it has thoroughly searched for responsive records and has articulated reasonably detailed explanations why any withheld documents fall within an exemption. Carney v. U.S. Dep't of Justice , 19 F.3d 807, 812 (2d Cir. 1994); see also Wilner v. Nat'l Sec. Agency , 592 F.3d 60, 69 (2d Cir. 2009). To carry its burden, the defending agency may rely on a Vaughn index, which consists of "affidavits to the court that describe with reasonable specificity the nature of the documents at issue and the justification for nondisclosure; the description provided in the affidavits must show that the information logically falls within the claimed exemption." Lesar v. United States Dep't of Justice , 636 F.2d 472, 481 (D.C. Cir. 1980); see also Halpern v. Fed. Bureau of Investigation , 181 F.3d 279, 291 (2d Cir. 1999) (citing Lesar). The function of the Vaughn index is three-fold: "(1) it forces the government to analyze carefully any material withheld, (2) it enables the trial court to fulfill its duty of ruling on the applicability of the exemption, and (3) it enables the adversary system to operate by giving the requester as much information as possible, on the basis of which he can present his case to the trial court." Halpern , 181 F.3d at 291 (quoting Keys v. United States Dep't of Justice , 830 F.2d 337, 349 (D.C. Cir. 1987)).

Agency affidavits, including the Vaughn index, are presumed to have been made in good faith. See Carney , 19 F.3d at 812. This presumption is not rebutted by bare allegations or speculative claims that additional documents exist. See Grand Cent. , 166 F.3d at 489. "If the agency's submissions are facially adequate, summary judgment is warranted unless the plaintiff can make a showing of bad faith on the part of the agency or present evidence that the exemptions claimed by the agency should not apply." Garcia v. United States Dep't of Justice, Office of Info. & Privacy , 181 F.Supp.2d 356, 366 (S.D.N.Y. 2002)(citing Carney , 19 F.3d at 812); Center for Constitutional Rights v. C.I.A., ___ F.3d ___, 2014 WL 4290452, at *3 (2d Cir. Sept. 2, 2014) (citing Wilner , 592 F.3d at 73) (agency declarations "are accorded a presumption of good faith, " and "when such declarations are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record nor by evidence of agency bad faith, ' summary judgment for the government is warranted."); Triestman v. United States Dep't of Justice, DEA , 878 F.Supp. 667, 672 (S.D.N.Y. 1995).

B. Analysis

1. Adequacy of Search for Responsive Documents

In response to a request for records under the FOIA, agencies are required to conduct a search "reasonably designed to identify and locate responsive documents" but need not "take extraordinary measures to find the requested records." Kennedy v. United States Dep't of Justice , 03-CV-6077, 2004 WL 2284691, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2004) (citing Garcia , 181 F.Supp.2d at 368). If an agency sufficiently demonstrates that it has conducted a reasonable search for responsive documents, it has fulfilled its obligations under the FOIA. See Garcia , 181 F.Supp.2d at 366 (citing Weisberg v. United States Dep't of Justice , 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984)). The agency can meet its burden of showing a good faith search by supplying affidavits from appropriate officials setting forth facts indicating that a thorough search was conducted. See Rabin v. United States Dep't of State , 980 F.Supp. 116, 120 (E.D.N.Y. 1997).

The Vaughn index in this case was prepared by David M. Hardy, Section Chief of the Record/Information Dissemination Section, Records Management Division, FBI. (Hardy Decl., ¶¶ 1-5.) Therein, Hardy states that in response to Plaintiff's FOIA request, the FBI searched its CRS using search terms that included "Occupy Buffalo, " "Occupy Buffalo Movement, " and "Buffalo Occupy Movement." (Hardy Decl., ¶ 20.) It also reviewed cross-reference material by searching its Request Tracking System ("RTS"). (Hardy Decl., ¶ 21.) Hardy explains at length the content, organization, and manner of access of these indices. (Hardy Decl., ¶¶ 14-19; Supp. Hardy Decl., ¶¶ 5, 6, 8.) The ...


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