484 F.2d 820 (D.C. Cir. 1973), 73-1039, Vaughn v. Rosen

Docket Nº:73-1039.
Citation:484 F.2d 820
Party Name:Robert G. VAUGHN, Appellant, v. Bernard ROSEN, Executive Director, United States Civil Service Commission, et al.
Case Date:August 20, 1973
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
 
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Page 820

484 F.2d 820 (D.C. Cir. 1973)

Robert G. VAUGHN, Appellant,

v.

Bernard ROSEN, Executive Director, United States Civil Service Commission, et al.

No. 73-1039.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.

Aug. 20, 1973

Argued June 7, 1973.

Rehearing Denied Oct. 18, 1973.

Ronald L. Plesser, Washington, D. C., with whom Alan B. Morrison, Washington, D. C., was on the brief, for appellant.

John C. Lenahan, Asst. U. S. Atty., with whom Harold H. Titus, Jr., U. S. Atty., John A. Terry and Derek I. Meier, Asst. U. S. Attys., were on the brief, for appellees.

Before ROBINSON and WILKEY, Circuit Judges, and FRANK A. KAUFMAN, [*] District Judge for the District of Maryland.

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WILKEY, Circuit Judge:

Appellant sought disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 1 of various government documents, purportedly evaluations of certain agencies' personnel management programs. The District

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Court denied disclosure, presumably on the ground the documents fell within one or more exemptions to the FOIA. 2 The scant record makes it impossible to determine if the information sought by appellant is indeed exempt from disclosure; we must remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

I. Facts

Overall responsibility to evaluate, oversee, and regulate the personnel management activities of the various federal agencies rests with the Civil Service Commission. 3 The Bureau of Personnel Management, the arm of the Civil Service Commission for this task, works with the agencies in evaluating their personnel management programs. After each evaluation is complete, the Bureau issues a report entitled Evaluation of Personnel Management. These evaluations assess the personnel policies of a particular agency and set forth recommendations and policies customarily adopted by both agencies and Commission. 4 Appellant, a law professor doing research into the Civil Service Commission, sought disclosure of these evaluations and certain other special reports of the Bureau of Personnel Management. 5

The Director of the Bureau of Personnel Management Evaluation declined to release the documents sought. 6 This refusal to disclose was sustained by the Executive Director of the Civil Service Commission, who asserted that the information was exempt from disclosure because it (1) related solely to the internal rules and practices of an agency; 7 (2) constituted inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with

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the agency; 8 and (3) was composed of personal and medical files, the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. 9

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After this refusal appellant filed this action in the District Court, seeking injunctive relief and an order requiring disclosure of the requested materials in accordance with 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3) (1970). The Government filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative for summary judgment, in which it was contended that the reports fell within the three exemptions given above.

Aside from legal arguments, the sole support, regarding the contents of the documents and their exemption, of the Government's motion was an affidavit of the Director of the Bureau of Personnel Management Evaluation. This affidavit did not illuminate or reveal the contents of the information sought, but rather set forth in conclusory terms the Director's opinion that the evaluations were not subject to disclosure under the FOIA. On the basis of this affidavit, the trial court granted the Government's motion for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

II. Problems of Procedure and Proof under the Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act was conceived in an effort to permit access by the citizenry to most forms of government records. In essence, the Act provides that all documents are available to the public unless specifically exempted by the Act itself. 10 This court has repeatedly stated that these exemptions from disclosure must be construed narrowly, in such a way as to provide the maximum access consonant with the overall purpose of the Act. 11 By like token and specific provision of the Act, when the Government declines to disclose a document the burden is upon the agency to prove de novo in trial court that the information sought fits under one of the exemptions to the FOIA. 12 Thus the statute and the judicial interpretations recognize and place great emphasis upon the importance of disclosure.

In light of this overwhelming emphasis upon disclosure, it is anomalous but obviously inevitable that the party with the greatest interest in obtaining disclosure is at a loss to argue with desirable legal precision for the revelation of the concealed information. Obviously the party seeking disclosure cannot know the precise contents of the documents sought; secret information is, by definition, unknown to the party seeking disclosure. In many, if not most, disputes under the FOIA, resolution centers around the factual nature, the statutory category, of the information sought.

In a very real sense, only one side to the controversy (the side opposing disclosure) is in a position confidently to make statements categorizing information,

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and this case provides a classic example of such a situation. Here the Government contends that the documents contain information of a personal nature the disclosure of which would constitute an invasion of certain individuals' privacy. This factual characterization may or may not be accurate. It is clear, however, that appellant cannot state that, as a matter of his knowledge, this characterization is untrue. Neither can he determine if the personal items, assuming they exist, are so inextricably bound up in the bulk of the documents that they cannot be separated out. The best appellant can do is to argue that the exception is very narrow and plead that the general nature of the documents sought make it unlikely that they contain such personal information.

E.P.A. v. Mink 13 differentiates between the action by the trial court called for when the factual nature of the disputed information is known and when it is not known. The first portion of the Supreme Court's decision dealt with documents the factual nature of which was not disputed; all parties agreed that the documents had been classified as "secret" by the President. The first exemption under the FOIA provides that documents which are "specifically required by Executive order to be kept secret in the interest of the national defense or foreign policy, " are exempt from disclosure. 14 Since the factual nature of the documents was undisputed and since under this undisputed description of the documents they clearly fit within the exemption, the Court held that no further inquiry or argument was permitted; they need not be revealed.

A second group of documents considered by the Court in Mink had not been classified "secret." They were claimed to be exempt as "inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency." 15 There was, however, a factual dispute regarding whether the documents actually fit this description. The Court concluded that, while material dealing with facts contained in such memoranda could be disclosed, memoranda dealing with law or policy were exempt. There was a still further factual dispute regarding how much of the material was factual, how much law or policy, and how much a combination of the two. With regard to this material which did not fit squarely within the language of the exemption, the Court remanded to the trial court to make a determination regarding the actual composition of the material.

The disputed information in this case is analogous to the second group of documents considered in Mink, in that on the record facts they do not indisputably fit within one of the exemptions to the FOIA. If the factual nature of the documents were so clearly established on the record, then the court would inquire no further and would make the legal ruling as to whether they fit within the defined exemption or exemptions. In this situation, in which there is a dispute regarding the nature of the information, the Supreme Court in Mink provided the outline of how trial courts should approach the job of making this factual determination. 16 Our discussion here is intended to be an elaboration of this outline.

This lack of knowledge by the party seeing disclosure seriously distorts the traditional adversary nature of our legal system's form of dispute resolution. Ordinarily, the facts relevant to a dispute are more or less equally available to adverse parties. In a case arising under

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the FOIA this is not true, as we have noted, and hence the typical process of dispute resolution is impossible. In an effort to compensate, the trial court, as the trier of fact, may and often does examine the...

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