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WILLIAMS v. U.S. DEPT. OF JUSTICE CIVIL RIGHTS SECTION UNIT

May 5, 2005.

JOHN L. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE CIVIL RIGHTS SECTION UNIT, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: KATHARINE HAYDEN, District Judge

OPINION

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.

BACKGROUND

  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. B.)

  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, summary judgment.

  DISCUSSION

  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 ...


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