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Antonelli v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

decided: November 22, 1983.


Appeal from the United States District Court For the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 79 C 1432 -- Prentice H. Marshall, Judge.

Bauer, Wood, Circuit Judges, and Neaher, Senior District Judge.*fn*

Author: Bauer

BAUER, Circuit Judge.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) appeals from the district court's denial of the FBI's motion for summary judgment on eight counts of Antonelli's request for records under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (1976) (FOIA). The district court denied the FBI's motion on the ground that the FBI failed to show that the requested information is exempt from disclosure under the FOIA exemption provisions, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b) (1976). Because we are persuaded that the FBI has met the FOIA exemption requirements, we reverse the district court's decision, 536 F. Supp. 568, and remand the case with instructions that the district court enter summary judgment in favor of the FBI.


Plaintiff-appellee Antonelli has been convicted of federal bank fraud charges and currently is serving his prison term in a federal penitentiary. During the first four months of 1979, Antonelli submitted numerous FOIA requests for FBI records concerning himself and a number of other individuals. The FBI produced some of the requested records, but declined to search its files for documents pertaining to eight of the individuals named in Antonelli's requests.

Antonelli then filed the present action in the district court to compel the FBI to release the requested information. The eight requests at issue here were consolidated into eight counts of Antonelli's thirty-seven count complaint. The FBI moved for summary judgment on these eight counts on the ground that the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a (1975), forbids the release of information to third party requesters unless either the individual about whom the records concern consents to disclosure or disclosure is mandated under the FOIA.

The eight individuals who were the subjects of Antonelli's request did not consent to disclosure of their records. In support of its motion for summary judgment, the FBI also offered an affidavit by FBI Special Attorney Donald L. Smith which stated that, if the requested records exist, they would be exempt from disclosure under the FOIA as either investigative files exempt under FOIA Exemption 7, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7), or personnel records exempt under FOIA Exemption 6, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). The affidavit further stated that merely affirming the existence of such records could be an unwarranted invasion of the individual privacy that the FOIA exemptions are designed to protect. The FBI concluded that because Antonelli identified no general public interest in disclosing the requested information, the FBI was not required to confirm or deny that the files exist.

The district court rejected the FBI's argument and denied the summary judgment motion. The court ordered the FBI either to produce the requested documents, or to use the detailed affidavits prescribed in Stein v. Department of Justice & FBI, 662 F.2d 1245 (7th Cir. 1981), to show that the documents are exempt from disclosure. The district court certified its order in January 1983, and this court granted Antonelli's motion for interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291(b) (1982). The district court later granted the FBI's motion for a stay of its order pending this appeal.


The Freedom of Information Act is designed to broaden public access to government information by mandating disclosure of federal agency documents. At the same time, Congress realized that some disclosures would intrude unduly into individual privacy and hamper legitimate governmental operations. The Act thus contains nine exemptions that allow agencies to withhold certain records. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b).

In the instant case the FBI has relied on Exemptions 6 and 7(C) & (D), 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6) & (7)(C) & (D), to deny eight of Antonelli's requests. Exemption 6 covers "personal and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Exemption 7 extends to "investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the exent that the production of such records would . . . (C) constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, [or] (D) disclose the identity of a confidential source. . . ."

When asserting that requested information is exempt from disclosure, agencies usually follow the procedures prescribed in Vaughn v. Rosen, 157 U.S. App. D.C. 340, 484 F.2d 820 (D.C. Cir. 1973), cert. denied, 415 U.S. 977, 39 L. Ed. 2d 873, 94 S. Ct. 1564 (1974). Under Vaughn, the agency has the initial burden of demonstrating why it should not disclose the information. The agency must provide a "detailed analysis" of the request and the reasons for invoking an exemption. Once the agency meets this initial burden, the court will balance the agency's justification against the public interest in disclosure. This court approved the Vaughn procedure in Stein v. Department of Justice, 662 F.2d 1245, 1253 (7th Cir. 1981), where we held that an agency must provide "detailed justification" for refusing a first party FOIA request.*fn1 (A request is termed "first party" when a person seeks his own records, in contrast to a third party request when one seeks another person's records.) In the instant case, the district court denied the FBI's motion for summary judgment because the FBI failed to provide this detailed analysis.

The FBI argues that the procedures prescribed in Stein and Vaughn should not be required in response to nonconsensual third party requests where the requesting party has identified no public interest in disclosure. We agree. The Vaughn procedure is a suggested approach for handling many FOIA requests; nevertheless, it is not required in all instances. Congress intended that the courts implement the exemptions by providing a workable formula to balance the dual interests of disclosure and privacy. No formula should sacrifice either of these goals. The Vaughn court struck this balance when it said that the detailed ...

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