Gerlich v. U.S. Dept. of Justice

Decision Date16 September 2009
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 08-1134 (JDB).
Citation659 F.Supp.2d 1
PartiesSean M. GERLICH, et al., Plaintiffs, v. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Daniel J. Metcalfe, Washington, DC, for Plaintiffs.

James Eamonn Sherry, Jeffrey Matthew King, John Maguire Dowd, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP, Robert Neil Driscoll, Marianne R. Casserly, Alston & Bird, LLP, Ilyse B. Stempler, John Martin Bray, King & Spalding, LLP, Vincent H. Cohen, Jr., Lisa Freiman Fishberg, Schertler & Onorato, LLP, Charles Samuel Leeper, Mark H.M. Sosnowsky, Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, Washington, DC, Holly A. Pierson, Morris, Manning & Martin, L.L.P., Atlanta, GA, for Defendants.


JOHN D. BATES, District Judge.

Plaintiffs are eight unsuccessful applicants for employment with the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ") who assert claims arising from the well-publicized misconduct of senior DOJ officials who allegedly discriminated against certain applicants based upon their political affiliations. Plaintiffs assert claims against defendant DOJ for monetary and equitable relief under the Privacy Act, the Civil Service Reform Act ("CSRA"), the Federal Records Act ("FRA") and the United States Constitution. Plaintiffs have also sued former DOJ officials Alberto Gonzales, Monica Goodling, Michael Elston, and Esther McDonald, and current DOJ official Louis DeFalaise (collectively, the "individual defendants"), personally for money damages based on claims brought directly under the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution. Now pending before the Court are motions to dismiss filed by DOJ and each of the individual defendants pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).1

From the inception of this case, plaintiffs have emphasized, repeatedly, the extraordinary circumstances that underlie it. To be certain, the Court agrees that misconduct by senior government officials— especially when it implicates the First Amendment—is gravely serious and must not be condoned. But defendants have raised several threshold issues that potentially prevent this Court from considering the merits of plaintiffs' case. Indeed, for the reasons explained below, the Court will not reach the merits of plaintiffs' constitutional claims against the individual defendants because it concludes that, under controlling Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit precedent, the CSRA is a comprehensive, remedial statutory scheme that precludes the recognition of an implied damages remedy against the individual defendants. The Court also concludes that plaintiffs' claims for equitable relief suffer from fatal pleading deficiencies. Likewise, most of plaintiffs' Privacy Act claims are insufficiently pled and must be dismissed. Plaintiffs James Saul, Matthew Faiella and Daniel Herber have, however, satisfied their pleading burden with respect to DOJ's alleged maintenance of First Amendment-related records (Count I) and irrelevant records (Count II) in violation of the Privacy Act, and those plaintiffs will be allowed to proceed with those claims. However, the other plaintiffs lack standing to pursue those claims and they will be dismissed from the case.

I. Allegations of Misconduct in the Honors Program and Summer Law Intern Program Hiring Process

The Attorney General's Honors Program ("Honors Program") is the exclusive means by which DOJ hires recent law school graduates and judicial law clerks who have no prior legal experience. First OIG/OPR Report at 3. Historically, the Honors Program has been very competitive and the number of applications received in a typical year far surpasses the number of positions that are available. Id. Several of DOJ's component divisions participate in the Honors Program hiring process, which is overseen by DOJ's Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management ("OARM"). Id. Although OARM processes all applications, each component hires its own Honors Program attorneys. Id. A similar hiring process also exists for paid summer interns in DOJ's Summer Law Intern Program ("SLIP"). Id. at 3-4.

In 2002, the Honors Program and SLIP hiring process was revamped in response to recommendations from a group of senior officials within the Attorney General's office ("Working Group"). See id. at 4. These changes, which remained in effect until 2006, were designed to stimulate increased applications, to maintain the prestige of the Honors Program and to help DOJ compete with law firms for the best candidates. See id. at 4-5. In order to allow more DOJ attorneys to participate, particularly political appointees in leadership positions, the hiring process became more centralized in Washington, D.C. See id. at 4. To that end, a Screening Committee, composed of several members of the Working Group, was also created to review and approve the candidates who were selected for interviews by the components. Id. at 5. The composition of the Screening Committee changed from year to year, and the components were generally unaware who served on the Committee or what criteria it applied in reviewing candidates. Id. Moreover, the Screening Committee gave no reasons or explanations for its decision to deselect a candidate from the list of those to be interviewed. Id.

Through 2005, OARM received very few complaints about the new hiring process or the decisions of the Screening Committee. Id. However, in 2006 OARM received a number of complaints regarding the abnormal length of time taken for Screening Committee review and the unusually large number of seemingly qualified Honors Program and SLIP candidates that were deselected for interviews. Id. As a result of the complaints, DOJ changed the hiring process once again in 2007, transferring control of the Screening Committee from political appointees to career employees. Id. Then, in April 2007, an anonymous letter was sent to the Chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees from "A Group of Concerned Department of Justice Employees." Id. at 66. That letter claimed that a number of highly qualified candidates, who had been selected for interviews by career employees within the individual DOJ components, had been subsequently rejected by the Screening Committee on the basis of their Democratic Party or liberal affiliations. Id. at 1 n. 1. The OIG and the OPR, which were already investigating issues related to the removal of certain United States Attorneys, decided to expand the scope of their investigation to include the allegations regarding Honors Program and SLIP hiring. Id. at 1.

On June 24, 2008, the OIG and the OPR issued a joint report summarizing their findings entitled "An Investigation of Allegations of Politicized Hiring in the Department of Justice Honors Program and Summer Law Intern Program." Sec. Am. Compl. ¶ 59. That report serves as the basis for most of the allegations in plaintiffs' second amended complaint. Central to those allegations is the report's finding that two members of the 2006 Screening Committee, Esther McDonald and Michael Elston, took political and ideological affiliations into account in deselecting candidates for Honors Program and SLIP interviews. See id. ¶¶ 184-92, 193-99; First OIG/OPR Report at 99. Plaintiffs also allege, based on the report, that McDonald conducted Internet searches regarding candidates' political and ideological affiliations, printed out such information when it revealed liberal associations and then attached the printouts and her own handwritten comments to the candidates' applications in support of her recommendations to deselect them. See Sec. Am. Compl. ¶ 62, 196; First OIG/OPR Report at 71-73, 76-77, 82. Because these documents existed only in hard copy, occupied substantial storage space and contained personal information about the applicants, they were placed in a "burn box" and destroyed prior to the initiation of the OIG/OPR investigation. See First OIG/OPR Report at 68-69.

As for the other individual defendants, plaintiffs focus much of their attention on Monica Goodling, then DOJ's White House Liaison, who they allege was the "principal wielder of authority among the four subcabinet-level individual defendants" and the de facto architect of this unlawful scheme to weed out "ideologically undesirable" candidates. See Sec. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 88, 95, 175-76, 178. Plaintiffs further allege that based upon Goodling's general oversight role and her admitted use of Internet "search strings" to screen liberal applicants for other career positions within DOJ, she also assisted McDonald with her Internet research regarding Honors Program and SLIP applicants. See id. ¶¶ 179-80. With regard to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, plaintiffs primarily allege that he was complicit in this scheme "[t]hrough his unprecedented, irresponsible abnegation of responsibility," by which he effectively authorized Goodling to orchestrate the unlawful conduct at issue. See id. ¶ 214. Likewise, plaintiffs also allege that Louis DeFalaise, Director of OARM, enabled the unlawful conduct because he held a "key oversight role" with regard to career employee hiring matters, he knew of complaints from some components in 2006 that the Honors Program and SLIP hiring process "had been politicized," and yet he "cast[ ] a blind eye" to the problem. See id. ¶¶ 202, 205, 207.

II. Procedural History

Plaintiff Sean Gerlich originated this action on June 30, 2008, less than a week after the first OIG/OPR report was released. The first amended complaint, filed by five of the current plaintiffs (Gerlich, Coleman, Gooch, Meier, Saul) and one who is no longer part of this action (Zajac), followed on August 15, 2008. Before all defendants could respond to the amended complaint, plaintiffs moved for leave to amend their complaint for a second time. This Court granted plaintiffs' motion and the second amended...

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