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Miller v. Webster

decided: October 1, 1981.

DAVID MILLER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
WILLIAM H. WEBSTER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 77 C 3331 -- Prentice H. Marshall, Judge .

Before Cummings, Chief Judge, Pell, Circuit Judge, and Larson, Senior District Judge.*fn*

Author: Per Curiam

This appeal arises under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552. The plaintiff David Miller (Miller) requested the Federal Bureau of Investigation (the FBI or the Bureau) and the Justice Department to provide him with all documents relating to his complaint to the FBI that someone had wiretapped his telephone.*fn1 The FBI released some 54 pages of material to the plaintiff, but, pursuant to exemptions 7(C) and (D) of the Act, §§ 552(b)(7)(C) & (D), the Bureau excised the names of persons interviewed in connection with the investigation, third parties named in those interviews, and FBI agents who took part in the investigation. The plaintiff brought suit to compel disclosure of the excised information. The district court granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and ordered the FBI to disclose all excised material. 483 F. Supp. 883. The issue presented by this appeal is whether the trial court erred when it found that exemptions 7(C) and (D) were not applicable to the excised names.

I.

As a threshold matter, the plaintiff challenges this court's jurisdiction of this appeal, claiming that the district court's order requiring the FBI to turn over the excised information is not a final order, and thus is not appealable.

A disclosure order in a FOIA suit is injunctive in nature. It is granted pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B), which confers jurisdiction upon the district court, "to enjoin the agency from withholding agency records and to order the production of any agency records improperly withheld from the complainant." This vests the district court with all the powers of an equity court to issue injunctive relief from withholding of agency records. Renegotiation Board v. Bannercraft Clothing Co., 415 U.S. 1, 18, 20, 94 S. Ct. 1028, 1037, 1038, 39 L. Ed. 2d 123 (1974). The courts of appeals have jurisdiction of appeals from interlocutory orders of the district court granting injunctions, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a). Thus we have jurisdiction of the present appeal regardless of whether other issues remain pending in the district court.*fn2 Coastal States Gas Corp. v. Department of Energy, 644 F.2d 969, 979 & n.15 (3d Cir. 1981); cf. Theriault v. United States, 503 F.2d 390, 391 (9th Cir. 1974) (when release of documents under FOIA is the ultimate relief sought by party, an order compelling their release is final under doctrine of Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 69 S. Ct. 1221, 93 L. Ed. 1528 (1949)).

II.

Before turning to the Bureau's specific assignments of error in the district court decision, a brief overview of the relevant statutory framework may be helpful. The purpose of the FOIA is to allow public access to official information unnecessarily shielded from public view, see EPA v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73, 80, 93 S. Ct. 827, 832, 35 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1973). An agency must release information in its possession unless it falls within one of the nine statutory exemptions to the Act. In light of the policy favoring disclosure, however, those exemptions are to be narrowly construed. Theriault v. United States, 503 F.2d 390, 392 (9th Cir. 1974). The Act provides that the district court is to make a de novo review of the administrative claim of exemption, and that the burden of justifying the decision to withhold is on the agency. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).

In light of the circumstances of this suit,*fn3 it is also well to note that it is not the purpose of the Act to benefit private litigants, NLRB v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 421 U.S. 132, 143 n.10, 95 S. Ct. 1504, 1512 n.10, 44 L. Ed. 2d 29 (1975), by serving as an adjunct or supplement to the discovery provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Nix v. United States, 572 F.2d 998, 1003 (4th Cir. 1978).

In 1974, Congress amended the FOIA provisions governing the role of a reviewing court in considering claimed exemptions. Prior to 1974 investigatory files compiled for law enforcement purposes were deemed entirely exempt from disclosure. See, e.g., Center for National Policy Review on Race & Urban Issues v. Weinberger, 163 U.S. App. D.C. 368, 502 F.2d 370, 372 (D.C.Cir.1974). The 1974 amendments narrowed this broad grant of exemption by limiting its application to particular types of information within the investigatory file.

Congress was extremely concerned, however, that personal privacy and confidentiality be preserved by means of exemptions 7(C) & (D), those at issue in this suit. Senator Hart, who introduced the amendment, discussed at length the purpose and operation of these exemptions in a Memorandum Letter contained in the legislative history of the amendments. He stated:

A question has been raised as to whether my amendment might hinder the (FBI) in the performance of its investigatory duties. The Bureau stresses the need for confidentiality in its investigations. I agree completely....

... My amendment would not hinder the Bureau's performance in any way.... (The amendment) was carefully drawn to preserve every conceivable reason the Bureau might have for resisting disclosure of material in an investigative file:

If informants' anonymity whether paid informers or citizen volunteers would be threatened, there would be no disclosure;

....

If disclosure is an unwarranted invasion of privacy, there would be no disclosure....;

If in any other way the Bureau's ability to conduct such investigation was threatened, ...


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