Guarascio v. Fed. Dureau of Investigation

Docket Number18-cv-2791 (CRC)
Decision Date01 November 2023
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia


Federal inmate Joseph Michael Guarascio filed this pro se action pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a. The suit challenges the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (“FBI's” or “Bureau's”) responses to his 2016 and 2018 requests seeking files related to his 2009 conviction for manufacturing child pornography. After the FBI twice maintained that it could not process his requests because he had waived his FOIA and Privacy Act rights in his plea agreement, Guarascio filed a complaint in this Court. That filing spurred the FBI to start processing his requests. Now that production is complete, the FBI moves for summary judgment. For the reasons below, the Court will grant its motion in part.

I. Background

In 2009, Joseph Michael Guarascio pleaded guilty and was convicted of manufacturing child pornography. Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (“DSUMF”) ¶ 1. As part of his plea agreement, Guarascio agreed to waive “all rights . . . to request or receive from the United States any records pertaining to the investigation . of this matter,” including all “rights conferred under the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974.” Compl., Ex. 2 at 3. Nonetheless, in 2011, the Bureau neglected to enforce this waiver due to an “administrative oversight” when it processed 2,010 pages and released 254 pages regarding Guarascio's criminal case at the request of his attorney. DSUMF ¶ 2; Declaration of Michael G. Seidel (“Seidel Decl.”) ¶¶ 6 n.1, 27.

Guarascio was not so fortunate when he submitted his own FOIA and Privacy Act request in 2016, seeking all [d]ocuments (whenever generated), property vouchers of seized property or evidence, any documentation provided or turned over to your agency by other law enforcement agencies, [and] transcripts of (audio, video) interviews pertaining to [his] prosecution.” Compl., Ex. 2, at 10. Guarascio additionally sought [a]ny documents regarding [his] name,” providing his full name, date and place of birth, and his social security number. Id. He then averred that he was willing to pay reasonable search and production costs. Id. The FBI refused this offer, however, informing Guarascio that it could not process his requests because he had waived his FOIA and Privacy Act rights under his plea agreement. DSUMF ¶ 7. After unsuccessfully appealing that determination within the FBI, Guarascio filed another request seeking the same information two years later. Id. ¶ 10. Once again, the FBI declined to process his request in light of his plea agreement. Id. ¶ 11.

After this second refusal, Guarascio filed the present action in this Court. His complaint alleged that the waiver in his plea agreement was unenforceable under the D.C. Circuit's then-recent decision in Price v. Department of Justice, 865 F.3d 676 (D.C. Cir. 2017), and requested a declaratory judgment to that effect. See Compl. at 7-8. Guarascio also sought an injunction directing the Bureau to provide him with the requested information. Id. at 8. In describing the materials sought, Guarascio quoted from the first half of his FOIA request for all documents regarding his criminal case but did not mention his additional demand for documents referencing his name. See id. at 4-5.

That lawsuit got the FBI's attention and jumpstarted production. The Bureau began by sending Guarascio a letter, enclosing the 254 pages concerning his criminal case that the FBI previously released to his then-attorney in 2011. DSUMF ¶¶ 12-13; Declaration of David M. Hardy (“Hardy Decl.”), ECF No. 20-1 ¶ 14. Still unsatisfied, Guarascio challenged the extent of the production. DSUMF ¶ 13. The FBI responded by re-processing the previously produced 2011 records, assigning coded exemption categories, and comparing these records with Guarascio's investigative file to look for any additional records. See Seidel Decl. ¶¶ 6 n.1, 13. The FBI then ran a new search within its Central Records System (“CRS”), which it describes as “an extensive system of records consisting of applicant, investigative, intelligence, personnel, administrative, and general files compiled and maintained by the FBI” that “spans the entire FBI organization.” Id. ¶ 14. In particular, the FBI searched the automated indices available through its “Sentinel” case management system, which replaced the Automated Case Support (“ACS”) system and contains all data previously housed in ACS. See id. ¶¶ 20-21, 26. Consistent with standard practice, the FBI searched Joseph Guarascio to find Plaintiff's “main” file. Id. ¶¶ 24, 26. Then, to comply fully with his inquiries, the Bureau “conducted an additional search of the CRS to locate any ‘reference' material potentially responsive to Plaintiff's request.” Id. ¶ 24.

After conducting these searches, the FBI released responsive documents to Guarascio bit by bit over the span of more than one year. See id. ¶¶ 6-11. In all, the FBI identified 2,089 responsive pages of records, released 159 pages in full, released 141 pages with redactions, and withheld 1,789 pages in their entirety. Id. ¶ 62. With each release, the FBI explained that “although these responsive records were exempt from disclosure in their entirety pursuant to Privacy Act Exemption (j)(2), the records were reviewed and processed under provisions of the FOIA to afford the greatest degree of access authorized by both laws.” Mot. for Summ. J.

(“MSJ”) at 4. Thus, the FBI claimed that it withheld in whole or in part only those records falling under FOIA Exemptions 3, 6, 7(C), 7(D), and 7(E). Seidel Decl. ¶ 4.

Alongside the production of these documents, the parties also squabbled over a handful of digital records. Following its initial search, the FBI sent Guarascio a letter in December 2019 informing him that the Bureau had “located 35 pages of records, consisting of photographs, as well as numerous audio files.” DSUMF ¶ 14. The letter advised Guarascio that the price for producing the digital media would be $700 to account for the costs of CDs to store the digital files and that he was required to pay half that amount up front. Id. ¶ 15; see also Hardy Decl., Ex. J at 1 (explaining the Bureau needed 47 CDs, each costing $15, for the production). Guarascio never made the down payment, however, despite two separate reminders from the FBI that he was required to do so to obtain the audio files. See Errata to Joint Status Report, ECF No. 29 at 1. Guarascio instead wrote to the FBI that he was “in the process of addressing the cost of the CDs with the Court[,] as [he] believe[d] that the cost for obtaining these CDs and other information should be waived as [he] had to incur significant Court and other legal fees involved with [his] Civil filing.” Hardy Decl., Ex. K at 1. Shortly thereafter, Guarascio filed a status report with the Court asserting that the costs should either be waived, reimbursed, or reduced because he “has incurred significant Court costs” in this litigation and believes that the requested records “contain exculpatory evidence relevant to his case.” ECF No. 16 at 2. The Court responded by issuing a minute order that “encourag[ed] the Government to consider Plaintiff's request for a fee waiver for the production of digital media (or production by alternative means) but took “no position” on the matter. The FBI did not budge from its demand for full payment, however. In its January 2021 status report, the FBI informed the Court it had finished reviewing the fee waiver request and determined “that a fee waiver is not warranted for various reasons.” ECF No. 32 at 1. The FBI explained Guarascio was not entitled to a price cut for producing these materials because he did not seek a fee waiver in his original request, he had received more than the 100 free pages to which he was entitled under FOIA, and there was no public interest in waiving the fee as disclosure would benefit only Guarascio. Because Guarascio never tendered payment, the Bureau never produced these digital records.

With production now complete, the FBI moves for summary judgment. The motion contends that (1) Guarascio lacks standing to challenge the FOIA/Privacy Act waiver in his plea agreement now that the FBI has produced the requested records; (2) the Bureau performed an adequate search; (3) it was not required to produce the digital files because Guarascio failed to make the required payment; (4) all withholdings of the paper records are justified under FOIA's statutory exemptions; and (5) it reasonably segregated and released all non-exempt records. In support of its motion, the FBI submitted a declaration from Michael Seidel, the Chief of its Record/Information Dissemination Section (“RIDS”), as well as a Vaughn index. See Seidel Decl.; id., Ex. G (Vaughn Index”). Guarascio filed an opposition, disagreeing on all counts.

II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment may be granted when the moving party establishes that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Summary judgment is the typical mechanism to determine whether an agency has met its FOIA obligations. See, e.g., Judicial Watch, Inc. v. CFPB, 60 F.Supp.3d 1, 6 (D.D.C. 2014).

To prevail on summary judgment in a FOIA matter, the agency must first show that it conducted an adequate search for the requested records. “For a search to be adequate, an agency must show ‘beyond material doubt that its search was reasonably calculated to uncover all...

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