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Stevens v. United States Department of State

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

April 14, 2015

JACQUELINE STEVENS, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

GEORGE M. MAROVICH, District Judge.

Plaintiff Jacqueline Stevens ("Stevens"), a college professor who has made something of a habit of using the federal courts and the Freedom of Information Act to obtain materials for her research, filed suit against the United States Department of State (the "Department of State") in order to obtain documents related to one Mark Lyttle, whose experience with deportation interested Stevens.

The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part defendant's motion for summary judgment. The Court grants in part and denies in part plaintiff's motion for summary judgment.

I. Background

The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted.[1]

In March 2013, Stevens submitted to the State Department two Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") requests. In the requests, Stevens sought information about Mark Lyttle ("Lyttle"). In April, the State Department informed Stevens that it would need her to supply an authorization from Lyttle to release the records. Before providing the release, Stevens filed suit. In September 2013, Stevens provided the State Department with an authorization Lyttle had signed on September 13, 2013. The State Department began searching for records.

The State Department concluded that the following entities or repositories were likely to possess responsive documents: the Central Foreign Policy Records, the Office of the Legal Advisor, the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City, and the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The State Department searched for documents in each of these places. (On summary judgment, plaintiff challenges the search only with respect to the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, so the Court does not include here all of the details of the State Department's search. Still, some of the details of the search outside of Honduras are relevant.) With respect to the Central Foreign Policy Records, the State Department performed a full-text computer search of the entire database for the time period of January 1, 2008 through September 24, 2013 (the approximate date of the search) using the search terms: "Lyttle, " "Mark Daniel Lyttle, " "Jose Thomas" and "Neil Rambana." (Those last two search terms were designed to capture documents that mentioned Lyttle's alias and/or his attorney.) The State Department found no responsive documents.

The State Department also searched within the Bureau of Consular Affairs. The Office of Passport Services is a division of the Bureau of Consular Affairs. There, a paralegal searched three databases for the time period of January 1, 2008 through October 9, 2013 (the date of the search) using the search terms "Lyttle, " "Mark Daniel Lyttle, " "Jose Thomas" and "Neil Rambana." Through this search, the State Department found two responsive documents. Another division of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, also conducted a search of its database and email system using the search terms, "Lyttle, " "Mark Daniel Lyttle, " "Jose Thomas, " "Neil Rambana, " and "deportations." The State Department found eight responsive records.

The State Department also searched at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The Chief of the American Citizens Services Unit ("ACS") searched the ACS electronic database using the search terms "Mark Daniel Lyttle, " "Mark Lyttle, " "Jose Thomas, " and "Neil Rambana." The Chief also searched the Consular Section's shared drive for the same terms. The Chief of the Non-Immigrant Visa Unit ("NIV") searched the NIV database using the same terms. A fraud prevention supervisor searched the electronic case assessment service database ("ECAS") using the same search terms. All told, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras found six responsive documents.

Through its entire search, the State Department found 48 responsive documents to produce to Stevens, although it redacted some of the documents. The State Department has supplied what is commonly known as a "Vaughn" index, which lists every document that was redacted, explains what information was redacted and explains the reason the State Department believes the redacted information falls within an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act. The State Department redacted information that was protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege and the work-product doctrine; information with respect to which the privacy interests of third parties outweighed the public interest in the information; and information to protect the privacy of the State Department employees who worked on Lyttle's case. Finally, the State Department withheld information that could disclose sensitive law enforcement techniques.

II. Summary Judgment Standards

Summary judgment shall be granted when "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). When making such a determination, the Court must construe the evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Summary judgment is appropriate, however, when the non-moving party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to the party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). "A genuine issue of material fact arises only if sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party exists to permit a jury to return a verdict for that party." Brummett v. Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc., 414 F.3d 686, 692 (7th Cir. 2005).

III. Discussion

With certain exceptions, the Freedom of Information Act requires agencies, "upon any request for records which (i) reasonably describes such records and (ii) is made in accordance with published rules stating the time, place, fees (if any), and procedures to be followed, [to] make the records promptly available to any person." 5 U.S.C. ยง 552(a)(3)(A). FOIA ...


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