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Reid v. United States Postal Service

July 5, 2006

MICHAEL REID, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Herndon, District Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION & FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Pending before the Court in this case are the two following motions: (1) Plaintiff's Motion to Conduct Discovery Prior to Ruling on Summary Judgment (Doc. 24) and (2) Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 21). Along with the summary judgment motion, defendant United States Postal Service ("USPS") filed a supporting memorandum (Doc. 22). Plaintiff Michael Reid filed his "Preliminary Response" to the summary judgment motion (Doc. 23), asserting that he is unable to adequately respond without being allowed to conduct reasonable discovery -- hence, the need for Plaintiff's Motion to Conduct Discovery, filed pursuant to FEDERAL RULE OF CIVIL PROCEDURE 56(f).

Plaintiff is an individual who brought suit against Defendant pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552 to request that the Court issue an Order requiring Defendant fully comply with Plaintiff's Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") requests (Doc. 1). Plaintiff first submitted a FOIA request for records from USPS in a letter, dated January 12, 2005 (hereinafter "FOIA Letter" or "FOIA request") (Doc. 23, Ex. A, ¶ 2 and Doc. 22, Attachment A - Declaration of Christopher Bernaky, Ex. 1). Plaintiff's FOIA Letter requested Defendant provide the following documents:

(1) All PS Form 3602-R for permit 135 [for] the month of October 2004, located at, and/or originating at the Blue Island, Illinois post office; and

(2) All postage statements [for] permit 135 for the month,*fn1 from Blue Island, Illinois; and

(3) All PS Form 1412 for Permit 135 for the month of October 2004, located at, and/or originating at the Blue Island, Illinois post office.

The holder of permit 135 is a company called TC Marketing. Form 3602-R is a postage statement used for standard mail. In his FOIA Letter Plaintiff also agreed to pay "up to $500.00 for his request" and explained he was not "seeking these documents for a commercial purpose" (Id.). However, Plaintiff did request either a waiver or reduction of fees if Defendant complied with his FOIA request.

In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that because Defendant had not responded to his FOIA Letter, on February 9, 2005, Plaintiff telephoned Postmaster Christopher Bernaky at the Blue Island, Illinois post office to inquire about his FOIA request (Doc. 1, ¶ 5). Plaintiff further alleges that the postmaster claimed he was not aware of the FOIA request, so Plaintiff subsequently faxed a copy of his FOIA Letter to the Postmaster on February 10, 2005 (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that he again telephoned the Postmaster on February 17, 2005, to inquire about his FOIA request and was told that it was being denied because the permit holder, TC Marketing, had objected to releasing such documents (Id. at ¶ 6). When asked for a copy of the permit holder's objection letter, Plaintiff asserts that the Postmaster refused (Id.). Construing the telephone conference as a denial of his request, Plaintiff then filed an appeal with the General Counsel of the Post Office in a written letter dated February 17, 2005 (Id. at ¶ 7, see also Doc. 23, Ex. A, ¶¶ 4 - 5 and Doc. 22, Ex. 3 to Bernaky Decl.).

The Postmaster received written objection from TC Marketing in a letter dated February 14, 2005, from Joseph M. Sperlin, President of TC Marketing (Doc. 22, p. 4).*fn2 He then formally responded to Plaintiff's FOIA Letter, in a letter dated February 17, 2005 (hereinafter the "Denial Letter"), denying Plaintiff's request (Doc. 22, Ex. 2 to Bernaky Decl.). The Denial Letter stated that Plaintiff's FOIA request was exempt from disclosure under FOIA Exemptions 3 and 4 (Id.). Continuing, the Denial Letter explained that Exemption 3 "applies to information that is exempt from disclosure by another federal law, and is invoked in conjunction with 39 U.S.C. § 410(c)(2), the Postal Reorganization Act, which protects information of a commercial nature, which under good business practice would not be disclosed" (Id.). Exemption 4 pertained to " 'trade secrets, or privileged or confidential commercial or financial information, obtained from any person' " (Id.).

Plaintiff states that he received the Denial Letter on February 22, 2005, and proceeded to file a supplemental appeal to the General Counsel of the Post Office in a letter dated that same day, based upon this new written denial of his FOIA request (Doc. 23, Ex. A, ¶ 6, and Doc. 22, Attachment F). Under FOIA, an agency has twenty days to respond to a request under the Act, including appeals (excluding weekends and legal public holidays). Plaintiff claims he received no response within this time-period, to which Defendant admits "more than twenty days elapsed before the agency responded to either of Plaintiff's appeal letters" (Doc. 22, p. 5).

Plaintiff thereby filed a Complaint, commencing suit against Defendant on April 5, 2005 (Doc. 1). On May 10, 2005, Chief Counsel for the Customer Protection and Privacy at Postal Service Headquarters, Anthony Alverno, responded to Plaintiff's appeals in a letter (Doc. 22, Attachment G). Mr. Alverno upheld the Postmaster's denial of Plaintiff's requests pursuant to Exemptions 3 and 4. Plaintiff notes that Mr. Alverno's response was sometime "after summons had been received by USPS . . ." (Doc. 23, Ex. A, ¶ 7).

Shortly after commencing this action, Plaintiff served Defendant with certain discovery requests. This prompted Defendant to file an Emergency Motion for Protective Order to Stay Discovery (Doc. 12), to which Plaintiff filed a Motion to Strike (Doc. 13). The Court granted Defendant a Protective Order and denied Plaintiff's Motion to Strike, in an Order (Doc. 19) issued by Magistrate Judge Wilkerson. Plaintiff appealed the Magistrate Judge's ruling (Doc. 20). Prior to the disposition of Plaintiff's appeal, Defendant filed its Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 21) and Plaintiff filed his Motion for Discovery Prior to Ruling on the Summary Judgment Motion (Doc. 24). The same day, Plaintiff also filed his "Preliminary" Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 23). Defendant filed an opposing Response to Plaintiff's Discovery Motion (Doc. 28).

The District Judge affirmed the Magistrate Judge's ruling (Doc. 27), finding that in a FOIA case, a court has discretion to limit discovery prior to a defendant's filing of a summary judgment motion (Doc. 27, p. 4). Moreover, in a FOIA case, an agency has the right to file a motion for summary judgment to demonstrate that it has reasonably conducted a search based upon a plaintiff's request and has either produced all relevant documents or has legitimate reason for withholding such documents (Doc. 27, p. 4; see also Liverman v. Office of Inspector General, 139 Fed. Appx. 942, 945 (10th Cir. 2005)). The agency's summary judgment motion must be supported by affidavit (typically called a "Vaughn Index"), which the court may presume was made by the agency in good faith (Id.). Ultimately, if the agency's submissions or reasons for withholding seem adequate and made in good faith from the face of the briefings, a district court may elect to award summary judgment in favor of the agency without need for discovery (Id.).

Practically speaking, if the court allowed a plaintiff to discover certain documents an agency was attempting to withhold pursuant to a FOIA exemption - it would render meaningless both the purpose of a plaintiff's lawsuit and also the agency's right to withhold such documents. Because Plaintiff did not show reason to overcome the presumption of the good faith accorded Defendant's Vaughn Index, nor did he demonstrate why the claimed exemptions did not apply to the denial, the Court affirmed the Magistrate Judge's ruling granting Defendant a Protective Order to stay discovery (Id.). The Court also indicated that it would determine Plaintiff's Motion to Conduct Discovery Prior to Ruling on Summary Judgment Motion (Doc. 24), made pursuant to Rule 56(f) of the FEDERAL RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE, at a later date (Id. at 6).

II. ANALYSIS

A. LEGAL STANDARD

1. FEDERAL RULE OF CIVIL ...


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