700 F.3d 246 (6th Cir. 2012), 11-6286, Rimmer v. Holder

Docket Nº:11-6286.
Citation:700 F.3d 246
Opinion Judge:BOGGS, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Michael Dale RIMMER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Eric H. HOLDER, Jr., in his official capacity as Attorney General; United States Department of Justice; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Robert S. Mueller III, in his official capacity as Director (FBI), Defendants-Appellees.
Attorney:Kelly A. Gleason, Office of the Post-Conviction Defender, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant. H. Thomas Byron III, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Appellees. Kelly A. Gleason, Office of the Post-Conviction Defender, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant. H. Thomas Byron ...
Judge Panel:Before: BOGGS and CLAY, Circuit Judges; and STAFFORD, District Judge.[*]
Case Date:November 21, 2012
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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Page 246

700 F.3d 246 (6th Cir. 2012)

Michael Dale RIMMER, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

Eric H. HOLDER, Jr., in his official capacity as Attorney General; United States Department of Justice; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Robert S. Mueller III, in his official capacity as Director (FBI), Defendants-Appellees.

No. 11-6286.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

November 21, 2012

Argued: Oct. 10, 2012.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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ARGUED:

Kelly A. Gleason, Office of the Post-Conviction Defender, Nashville,

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Tennessee, for Appellant.

H. Thomas Byron III, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Kelly A. Gleason, Office of the Post-Conviction Defender, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

H. Thomas Byron III, Leonard Schaitman, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Appellees.

Before: BOGGS and CLAY, Circuit Judges; and STAFFORD, District Judge.[*]

OPINION

BOGGS, Circuit Judge.

In 1998, Appellant Michael Dale Rimmer was convicted and sentenced to death in Tennessee state court for the murder of Ricci Lynn Ellsworth. After his conviction, Rimmer learned that the federal government had conducted a joint investigation of Ellsworth's murder with the Memphis Police Department and now alleges that this investigation produced exculpatory evidence to which he should have been privy. Based on these allegations, Rimmer instituted state post-conviction proceedings, and in the course of preparing for these proceedings, was able to obtain some, but not all, of the allegedly exculpatory evidence directly from the Memphis Police Department. In order to obtain a complete record of the allegedly exculpatory evidence, Rimmer next turned to the FBI, submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that sought all FBI documents relating to Rimmer. In response, the FBI released 189 full or partially redacted pages from a total of 616 pages believed to be in its relevant files. Rimmer appealed the FBI's response to the United States Department of Justice Office of Information Policy, which upheld the FBI's limited release of documents.

Rimmer then filed claims under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. § 702, and the Mandamus Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1361, in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, seeking to compel the FBI to release unredacted versions of all documents in its possession that related to Rimmer. Rimmer later amended his complaint to add a claim under FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). Soon after, the FBI determined that the relevant files contained 786 pages and released all of them to Rimmer. However, 704 of the released pages were partially redacted, and Rimmer continued to press his suit, disputing the redactions on 539 of these 704 pages.

The district court dismissed Rimmer's APA and mandamus claims as precluded by the existence of an adequate remedy under FOIA. The district court, after conducting an in camera review of the unredacted documents, also granted summary judgment to the government on Rimmer's FOIA claim, holding that the FBI's redactions were proper under FOIA Exemptions 7(C) and 7(D) and that, in the case of the 7(C) redactions, there was not a " countervailing public benefit" to support disclosure of this otherwise protected information. Rimmer appeals both the district court's dismissal of his APA and mandamus claims and its grant of summary judgment in favor of the government on his FOIA claim. For the reasons outlined below, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

I

On February 8, 1997, Ellsworth, a clerk at the Memphis Inn in Memphis, Tennessee,

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went missing. Memphis police and the FBI conducted a joint investigation of Ellsworth's presumed death as part of the FBI Safe Streets Task Force (SSTF). During this investigation, James Darnell, a United States Army sergeant stationed in Hawaii who was visiting family in Memphis, approached the FBI and stated that between 1:30 and 2:30 a.m. on the night of Ellsworth's disappearance, he had seen two white males in the motel office where Ellsworth worked and that they were taking money from the cash register and had blood on their hands. Darnell's descriptions of the two men did not match Rimmer's physical appearance. On May 20, 1997, FBI agents in Hawaii showed Darnell several photo lineups that included pictures of both Rimmer, who had emerged as a prime suspect, and Billy Wayne Voyles, a man with an outstanding arrest warrant for unrelated attempted murder and robbery charges. Darnell identified Voyles as one of the bloodied men he witnessed taking money from the motel. He did not identify Rimmer. On May 22, 1997, the FBI sent a form documenting the results of the photo lineup back to the Memphis SSTF office. The FBI conducted a second photo lineup in Hawaii, on June 21, 1997, in which Darnell again identified only Voyles— and not Rimmer— as one of the men he observed. On June 24, 1997, the FBI sent the Memphis SSTF office a form documenting the results of this lineup as well.

In 1998, Rimmer was convicted of Ellsworth's murder in Tennessee state court and sentenced to death. Having learned that Rimmer had been sentenced to death in state court, the United States Attorney declined prosecution and closed the federal investigation of Rimmer. After several appeals to the Tennessee Supreme Court concerning the sentencing phase of his trial, Rimmer's death sentence was ultimately affirmed in 2008. That same year, Rimmer filed a petition for post-conviction relief in Tennessee state court.1

Rimmer alleges that he learned of the joint federal investigation of Ellsworth's death only while preparing for his post-conviction proceedings. During this preparation, he made state public-information requests and thus acquired proof of Darnell's identification of Voyles from an FBI form, documenting the results of the photo lineup, that was in the " residual evidence" file in the Tennessee state court clerk's office. Rimmer asserts that only through this independent investigation did he learn of Darnell's identification of Voyles as a potential suspect. He also claims that the lead investigator for the state gave false testimony at trial— that Darnell had not identified anyone from the photo lineups— in an effort to prevent Rimmer from discovering exculpatory evidence.

On April 7, 2009, in preparation for his state-court post-conviction proceedings, Rimmer sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI, seeking all records relating to Ricci Ellsworth, Billy Wayne Voyles, James Darnell, and Michael Rimmer.2 The FBI informed Rimmer that it

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would not be able to initiate searches under FOIA for records relating to individuals other than Rimmer until it received proof of death or a privacy waiver.3 In addition, the FBI located 616 pages relating to Rimmer— called Rimmer's relevant file— and provided Rimmer with 62 pages in full and 127 pages that were partially redacted under various FOIA exemptions. On August 7, 2009, Rimmer appealed the FBI's response to the Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy, which affirmed the FBI's decision.

Rimmer then proceeded to file the instant lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee against the United States Attorney General, the Department of Justice, and the FBI, asserting claims under the APA, 5 U.S.C. § 702, and the Mandamus Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1361. Specifically, Rimmer argued that the district court could order full production of the documents he sought under § 706 of the APA, which provides a district court with authority to set aside an agency action that was " arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law," that was " contrary to constitutional right, power, privilege, or immunity," or that was " without observance of procedure require [ sic ] by law," Rimmer Compl. at 21 (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A), (B), & (D)), and under the Mandamus Act, which Rimmer claimed gave district courts " the power to compel third party federal agencies to produce requested documents," id. at 21-22. Rimmer also later amended his complaint to include a claim for full production of the documents under § 552(a)(4)(B) of FOIA, which permits a district court " ‘ to enjoin the agency from withholding agency records and to order the production of any agency records improperly withheld from the complainant.’ " Rimmer Am. Compl. at 1-2 (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B)).

After filing this suit, Rimmer entered into negotiations with the FBI, during which the FBI updated the size of his relevant file to 786 pages. The FBI released 82 of these pages to Rimmer in full and provided partially redacted versions of the remaining 704, basing these redactions on FOIA exemptions 6, 7(C), and 7(D). Rimmer continued to dispute the redactions on 539 of the 704 partially redacted pages, and it is only the propriety of these contested redactions that was litigated in the district court and that is now before this court on appeal. Upon agreement of the parties, the government submitted unredacted versions of the 539 disputed pages to the district court for an in camera review of the FBI's redactions.

The government then filed: (1) a motion to dismiss Rimmer's APA and mandamus claims, arguing, inter alia, that they were precluded by the existence of an alternative

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adequate remedy, i.e., a claim brought pursuant to FOIA; and (2) a motion for summary judgment on Rimmer's FOIA claim, arguing that the FBI had released all requested information except that protected by proper FOIA exemptions.

The district court granted the government's motion to...

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