White v. Dep't of Justice, Case No. 16-cv-948-JPG

CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Illinois
Citation460 F.Supp.3d 725
Parties William A. WHITE, Plaintiff, v. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Marshals Service, Federal Bureau of Prisons and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Defendants.
Decision Date19 May 2020
Docket NumberCase No. 16-cv-948-JPG

460 F.Supp.3d 725

William A. WHITE, Plaintiff,
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Marshals Service, Federal Bureau of Prisons and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Defendants.

Case No. 16-cv-948-JPG

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois.

Signed May 19, 2020

460 F.Supp.3d 733

William A. White, Marion, IL, pro se.

Suzanne M. Garrison, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Fairview Heights, IL, for Defendants.



This matter comes before the Court on plaintiff William A. White's Consolidated Third Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 90) and defendant Department of Justice's ("DOJ") Cross Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 98). The parties have responded to each other's motions (Docs. 95 & 108), and White has replied to the DOJ's response (Doc. 113).

I. Background

White brings this action under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552.1 He alleges that the Federal Bureau of Investigations ("FBI"), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ("ATF"), the United States Marshals Service ("USMS"), and the Federal Bureau of Prisons ("BOP") did not respond properly to some of his requests for information under the FOIA. Specifically, White's claims fall into three categories:

• the agencies "administratively defaulted" because they failed to respond to his requests at all, failed to respond within the time periods set forth in the FOIA, or exceeded the permitted requests for clarification from the requesting party;

• the agency incorrectly denied having responsive records; and

• the agency improperly withheld responsive records pursuant to two statutory exemptions—Exemptions 6 and 7(C)—regarding invasion of personal privacy.

Am. Compl. (Doc. 25 at 9-10). The Court granted summary judgment for the DOJ on White's claims involving two requests; all of his other claims remain pending and are the subject of the pending cross motions for summary judgment.

II. Legal Standards

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment must be granted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) ; see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) ; Spath v. Hayes Wheels Int'l-Ind., Inc. , 211 F.3d 392, 396 (7th Cir. 2000). The reviewing court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. See

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Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) ; Chelios v. Heavener , 520 F.3d 678, 685 (7th Cir. 2008) ; Spath , 211 F.3d at 396.

The initial summary judgment burden of production is on the moving party to show the Court that there is no reason to have a trial. Celotex , 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548 ; Modrowski v. Pigatto , 712 F.3d 1166, 1168 (7th Cir. 2013). Where the non-moving party carries the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden of production in one of two ways. It may present evidence that affirmatively negates an essential element of the non-moving party's case, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A), or it may point to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the non-moving party's case without actually submitting any evidence, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(B). Celotex , 477 U.S. at 322-25, 106 S.Ct. 2548 ; Modrowski , 712 F.3d at 1169. Where the moving party fails to meet its strict burden, a court cannot enter summary judgment for the moving party even if the opposing party fails to present relevant evidence in response to the motion. Cooper v. Lane , 969 F.2d 368, 371 (7th Cir. 1992).

In responding to a summary judgment motion, the nonmoving party may not simply rest upon the allegations contained in the pleadings but must present specific facts to show that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Celotex , 477 U.S. at 322-26, 106 S.Ct. 2548 ; Anderson , 477 U.S. at 256-57, 106 S.Ct. 2505 ; Modrowski , 712 F.3d at 1168. A genuine issue of material fact is not demonstrated by the mere existence of "some alleged factual dispute between the parties," Anderson , 477 U.S. at 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, or by "some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts," Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). Rather, a genuine issue of material fact exists only if "a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the [nonmoving party] on the evidence presented." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252, 106 S.Ct. 2505.


1. Purpose

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has described the FOIA generally:

"The basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed." NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242, 98 S. Ct. 2311, 57 L.Ed.2d 159 (1978). Toward that end, FOIA provides that agencies "shall make ... records promptly available to any person" who submits a request that "(i) reasonably describes such records and (ii) is made in accordance with [the agency's] published rules." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A). The Act is "broadly conceived," and its "basic policy" is in favor of disclosure. Robbins Tire, 437 U.S. at 220, 98 S. Ct. 2311. Agencies are, however, permitted to withhold records under nine statutory exemptions and three special exclusions for law-enforcement records. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b) - (c).

Rubman v. U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Servs. , 800 F.3d 381, 386 (7th Cir. 2015).

In creating the exemptions to FOIA disclosure, "Congress sought ‘to reach a workable balance between the right of the public to know and the need of the Government to keep information in confidence to the extent necessary without permitting indiscriminate secrecy.’ " John Doe Agency v. John Doe Corp. , 493 U.S. 146, 152, 110 S.Ct. 471, 107 L.Ed.2d 462 (1989) (quoting H.R. Rep. No. 1497, 89th Cong., 2d Sess., 6 (1966), reprinted in 1966 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2418, 2423). "But these limited

460 F.Supp.3d 735

exemptions do not obscure the basic policy that disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of the Act." Dep't of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361, 96 S.Ct. 1592, 48 L.Ed.2d 11 (1976). Therefore, the Court must narrowly construe the exemptions, id. , and the agency bears the burden of showing they apply, 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). John Doe Agency , 493 U.S. at 152, 110 S.Ct. 471. In reaching its decision, the Court should take a practical approach to achieving the balance sought by Congress. Id. at 158, 110 S.Ct. 471.

2. FOIA Request

To establish a cause of action under the FOIA, a plaintiff must show that, in response to a valid FOIA request, "an agency has (1) ‘improperly’; (2) ‘withheld’; (3) ‘agency records.’ " Kissinger v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of Press , 445 U.S. 136, 150, 100 S.Ct. 960, 63 L.Ed.2d 267 (1980) (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B) ). A valid FOIA request reasonably describes the records if the agency can determine exactly what records are being requested. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A) ; Kowalczyk v. DOJ , 73 F.3d 386, 388 (D.C. Cir. 1996). "A reasonable description of records is one that would allow an agency employee to locate the records ‘with a reasonable amount of effort.’ " Moore v. FBI , 283 F. App'x 397, 398 (7th Cir. 2008) (quoting Marks v. USDOJ, 578 F.2d 261, 263 (9th Cir. 1978) ). A request seeking all records relating to a subject may not satisfy this standard and therefore may not trigger the agency's obligation to search for records. See Freedom Watch, Inc. v. Dep't of State , 925 F. Supp. 2d 55, 61-62 (D.D.C. 2013). The request must also be made in compliance with the agency's rules on the time, place, fees, and procedures for making such a request. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A).

3. Search for Records

Agency records may be found to be improperly withheld if the agency failed to make "a good faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records, using methods which can be reasonably expected to produce the information requested." Rubman v. U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Servs. , 800 F.3d 381, 387 (7th Cir. 2015) (internal quotations omitted); accord Stimac v. USDOJ , 991 F.2d 800, 1993 WL 127980, at *1 (7th Cir. 1993) (Table) (search must be "reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents"); In re Wade , 969 F.2d 241, 249 n. 11 (7th Cir. 1992) (question is whether search was "reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents"). The agency need not search all of its record systems, but only systems where responsive information is likely to be found, although it should explain why it believes such limits are reasonable. Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of Army , 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990). "Good faith is presumed ..., and it can be bolstered by evidence of the agency's efforts to satisfy the request." Rubman , 800 F.3d at 387 (internal citation omitted).

At the summary judgment stage, such information normally comes...

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