United States District Court, D. New Jersey
May 5, 2005.
JOHN L. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE CIVIL RIGHTS SECTION UNIT, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: KATHARINE HAYDEN, District Judge
Pro se plaintiff John L. Williams filed an action on July 16,
2004 against the United States Department of Justice Federal
Bureau of Investigation Civil Rights Section and two United
States Attorneys, James B. Comey and Christopher J. Christie
(collectively "defendants"), alleging violations of the Freedom
of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, and the Privacy Act,
5 U.S.C. § 552(a). Plaintiff did not address the Privacy Act in
his papers except as a jurisdictional basis in his Complaint.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, or, in the alternative, for
summary judgment. In response, plaintiff filed a document titled
"Affidavit in Support of Plaintiff's Cross-motion." The Court has
considered these submissions, and for the following reasons,
grants summary judgment in favor of defendants.
In 1980, plaintiff complained to the Southern District of New
York ("SDNY") about an alleged conspiracy to violate his civil
rights in 1977 and 1978 by transferring him between states in connection with a criminal prosecution. (Compl. at 1, 2, 4.)
This request was forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation
("FBI"). (Compl. at 3, 4.) In 1982, plaintiff wrote to the SDNY
seeking an update to his request. (Compl., Exh. C.) In response,
the Chief of the Civil Rights Unit informed plaintiff by letter
dated March 10, 1982 that his claims did not merit an
investigation. (Compl., Exh. C.) In 1996, plaintiff repeated the
same allegations in a request to the United States Attorney's
Office for the SDNY. (Compl., Exh. C.) Defendants state these
allegations also were not pursued because they were meritless.
(Def. Moving Br. at 1.)
On October 21, 2003, plaintiff made a FOIA request to the SDNY
for investigative records. (Decl. of Luczynski ¶ 4; Freedom of
Information/Privacy Act Request, Exh. A.) Plaintiff specifically
asked for records or information related to "a criminal
investigation and civil rights violations, attached letters of
August 4, 1980, March 10, 1982, and October 10, 1996. . . . ."
(Decl. of Luczynski ¶ 4; Exh. A.) The Executive Office for the
United States Attorney ("EOUSA") acknowledged plaintiff's request
and assigned him FOIA No. 03-3556. (Decl. of Luczynski ¶ 5; Exh.
EOUSA referred plaintiff's request to the SDNY on December 5,
2003 and asked Michelle Smith ("Smith"), the FOIA Contact, to
search the records. (Decl. of Luczynski ¶ 6; Exh. C.) On December
11, 2003, Smith informed EOUSA that no records were found in
response to plaintiff's request. (Decl. of Luczynski ¶ 7.)
Plaintiff was so informed by letter dated December 22, 2003.
(Decl. of Luczynski ¶ 8; Exh. E.)
Plaintiff filed an appeal with the Office of Information and
Privacy ("OIP") on January 6, 2004, claiming that he was
wrongfully prevented from getting the requested records. (Decl.
of Luczynski ¶ 9; Exh. F.) The OIP affirmed EOUSA's response, and
informed plaintiff of its action by letter dated June 28, 2004.
(Decl. of Luczynski ¶ 10; Exh. G.) Subsequently, plaintiff brought this action, seeking an order
compelling defendants to conduct and complete a reasonable search
for the requested documents.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, or, in the alternative,
Under FOIA, a government agency must promptly release agency
documents, upon request, subject to nine specific statutory
exemptions. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). Dep't of Air Force v. Rose,
425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976). If the agency fails to release the
requested information and administrative remedies have been
exhausted, a federal district court can review the agency's
decision de novo. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).
FOIA cases are typically decided on motions for summary
judgment. Miscavige v. IRS, 2 F.3d 366, 369 (11th Cir. 1993).
The standard courts use in determining if summary judgment is
appropriate is whether the moving party can establish that "there
is no genuine issue as to any material fact" such that she is
"entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).
Summary judgment is warranted in favor of the agency when it
demonstrates that "viewing the facts in the light most favorable
to the requester, . . . [it] `has conducted a search reasonably
calculated to uncover all relevant documents.'" Steinberg v.
United States Dep't of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 551-52 (D.C. Cir.
1994) (quoting Weisberg v. United States Dep't of Justice,
745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984)); see Carney v. United States
Dep't of Justice, 19 F.3d 807, 812 (2d Cir. 1994) (stating that
to prevail on a summary judgment motion, "the defending agency
has the burden of showing that its search was adequate and that
any withheld documents fall within an exemption to the FOIA").
The 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."
Oglesby v. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990); see Campbell v. United States Dep't of
Justice, 164 F.3d 20, 27 (D.C. Cir. 1998).
A district court needs an "adequate factual basis" before it
can hold that the government complied with FOIA. Sheet Metal
Workers v. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 135 F.3d 891, 896 (3d Cir.
1998). The court may award summary judgment based solely on
information provided by affidavits or declarations that explain
in reasonable detail and in a non-conclusory fashion the scope
and method of the agency's search. SafeCard Services v. SEC,
926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991); see Carney,
19 F.3d at 812 ("Affidavits or declarations supplying facts indicating that
the agency has conducted a thorough search . . . are sufficient
to sustain the agency's burden."). These affidavits or
declarations must be specific enough to allow meaningful review,
McDonnell v. United States, 4 F.3d 1227, 1242 (3d Cir. 1993),
and must identify the search term and the type of search
performed and describe how the files likely to contain responsive
materials were searched. Iturralde v. Comptroller of the
Currency, 315 F.3d 311, 313-14 (D.C. Cir. 2003).
The "search for responsive documents need not, and indeed could
not be perfect," and "[t]he agency is not expected to take
extraordinary measures to find the requested records, but only to
conduct a search reasonably designed to identify and locate
responsive documents." Garcia v. United States Dep't of
Justice, 181 F. Supp. 2d 356, 368 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (internal
citation omitted). "The affidavits of the responding agency need
not set forth with meticulous documentation the details of an
epic search for the requested records." Manna v. U.S. Dep't of
Justice, 815 F. Supp. 798, 817 (D.N.J. 1993). "Rather, in the
absence of countervailing evidence or apparent inconsistency in
proof, affidavits that explain in reasonable detail the scope and
method of the search conducted by the agency will suffice to
demonstrate compliance with the obligations imposed by FOIA." Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 127
(D.C. Cir. 1982).
Where the agency's affidavits are adequate on their face, a
plaintiff must show bad faith on the agency's part in order to
defeat summary judgment. See Carney, 19 F.3d at 812;
Triestman v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 878 F. Supp. 667, 672
(S.D.N.Y. 1995). The government's affidavits or declarations are
accorded "a presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted
by purely speculative claims about the existence and
discoverability of other documents." SafeCard,
926 F.2d at 1200. Absent a showing of bad faith, affidavits or declarations
deemed legally adequate by the court are sufficient to
demonstrate an agency's compliance with FOIA. See Garcia,
181 F. Supp. 2d at 366 (noting that once an agency demonstrates that
it has conducted a "reasonable search for relevant documents,"
the agency "has fulfilled its obligations under FOIA and is
entitled to summary judgment on this issue"); Weisberg,
745 F.2d at 1485 (stating that the "issue to be resolved is not
whether there might exist any other documents possibly responsive
to the request, but rather whether the search for documents was
In the present matter, defendants have provided detailed
affidavits regarding their search in response to plaintiff's FOIA
request. The Declaration of David Luczynski, an Attorney Advisor
with EOUSA, FOIA/PA Unit, describes the specific type of search
undertaken by the government in order to make sure all available
information was gathered to fulfill plaintiff's request. It
appears that on December 5, 2003, EOUSA referred plaintiff's
request to the SDNY and asked Smith, the FOIA Contact, to conduct
a search of the records in response to plaintiff's request.
(Decl. of Luczynski ¶ 6.) In performing her search, Smith
searched all manual and computer systems, card indexes
(pre-1985), purged files from PROMIS, and the current case
tracking system LIONS. (Decl. of Luczynski ¶ 11; Exh. H ¶ 2.) The
"LIONS" system is a computer system that tracks cases and retrieves files regarding
cases and investigations used by the United States Attorneys
Offices. (Decl. of Luczynski ¶ 11.) This system allows the user
to access databases to retrieve information based on a given
name, the United States's Attorney's Office internal
administrative number (USAO number), and the district court
number. Id. Defendants contend, and this Court agrees, that all
responsive documents related to plaintiff's FOIA request would
have been located in the SDNY because there were no other record
systems or locations within EOUSA or the Department of Justice in
which files pertaining to plaintiff's criminal cases were
Smith contacted EOUSA, which informed plaintiff that no records
were found responsive to plaintiff's request. (Decl. of Luczynski
¶¶ 7-8; Exh. H ¶ 2.) This is consistent with the letter plaintiff
received in 1982 from the Chief of the Civil Rights Unit stating
that his allegations did not warrant an investigation. Id.
Defendant's contend in their brief, with logical force:
"[Plaintiff] seeks records about a complaint that he made to the
FBI some 24 years ago in connection with a transfer from one
jurisdiction to another that related to his own prosecution for
crimes of which he was apparently found guilty. He was told
almost 23 years ago that his allegations had not resulted in a
federal investigation. That statement was correct in 1982, and
remains correct today. There are no records to produce." (Def.
Moving Br. at 7.)
The declaration demonstrates that the government performed a
systematic and comprehensive search, and located no responsive
records. (Decl. of Luczynski ¶ 11.) Plaintiff has submitted no
evidence to indicate otherwise or establish bad faith. All
plaintiff states in his opposition is that he is "seeking records
from the F.B.I. files that should have been known and existed,
and investigated of deleted documents." (Pl. Oppos. Br. at 1.) As
such, there is no evidence of record that the government made other than a "good
faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records, using
methods which reasonably can be expected to produce the
information requested." Moore v. Aspin, 916 F. Supp. 32, 35
(D.D.C. 1996). This is all that is required to satisfy FOIA.
Plaintiff's position appears to conflate the FOIA obligation
with his belief that the FBI should have conducted an
investigation of whether his civil rights were violated. The
legal standard for evaluating the adequacy of the search is "not
whether there might exist any other documents possibly responsive
to the request, but rather whether the search for those documents
was adequate." Steinberg, 23 F.3d at 551. Plaintiff's strong
belief that defendants possess responsive documents because his
underlying allegations of civil rights violations are meritorious
is nothing more than speculation, and therefore is insufficient
to raise a genuine issue of material fact with respect to the
adequacy of the search conducted by the government.
Although a pro se plaintiff is afforded a close and
sympathetic reading of the complaint, Haines v. Kerner,
404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972), here there is no evidence to suggest
that defendants failed to conduct a reasonable search for
responsive documents, and no evidence that they acted in bad
faith. As such, defendants are entitled to summary judgment.
Since nothing in the record contradicts defendants
representations and nothing in the record indicates that
defendants have acted in bad faith, the Court holds that an in
camera inspection of the records is not warranted.
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