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Baker v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

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

December 6, 2016

BEN BAKER, Plaintiff,
v.
FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Samuel Der-Yeghiayan, United States District Court Judge

         This matter is before the court on Plaintiff Ben Baker's (Baker) and Defendant Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, FBI's motion for summary judgment is granted and Baker's motion for summary judgment is denied.

         BACKGROUND

         On January 31, 2014, Baker submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, request to the Department of Justice, Office of Information Policy (OIP), seeking access to "the entire investigative file regarding United States v. Ronald Watts, l:12-cr-00087." Ronald Watts (Watts) is a former Chicago Police Department Officer who was subject to federal investigation, convicted of theft of government funds, and sentenced to twenty two months in prison and one year of supervised release. Baker contends he was a victim of Watts' criminal activity.

         OIP allegedly forwarded Baker's FOIA request to the FBI on March 18, 2014. The FBI informed Baker that the requested records were exempt from disclosure under 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6) and § 552(b)(7)(C). After an unsuccessful appeal, Baker filed this cause of action on November 11, 2014 alleging a single count against the FBI claiming a violation of FOIA. After the lawsuit was initiated, the FBI advised Baker that he had demonstrated public interest sufficient to warrant a search for responsive records. From April 21, 2015 to February 22, 2016, the FBI reviewed a total of 5, 818 pages that were responsive to Baker's request and released 736 records. Of the 736 records released, Baker is challenging redactions on sixty three pages. Baker seeks names and identifying information of federal agents who investigated Watts, any potential co-conspirators, the names and identifying information of Chicago Police Department officers and personnel, and the names and identifying information of other public employees mentioned in the reports.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the record, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, reveals that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Smith v. Hope School, 560 F.3d 694, 699 (7th Cir. 2009). A "genuine issue" in the context of a motion for summary judgment is not simply a "metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rather, a genuine issue of material fact exists when "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Insolia v. Phillip Morris, Inc., 216 F.3d 596, 599 (7th Cir. 2000). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must consider the record as a whole, in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; Bay v. Cassens Transport Co., 212 F.3d 969, 972 (7th Cir. 2000). When there are cross motions for summary judgment, the court should "construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences in favor of the party against whom the motion under consideration is made." Premcor USA, Inc. v. American Home Assurance Co., 400 F.3d 523, 526-27 (7th Cir. 2005).

         DISCUSSION

         Section 552(a)(4)(B) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) states that a district court should review an agency's denial of a FOIA request de novo. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). Pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B), the agency bears the burden of justifying its decision to withhold records pursuant to FOIA's statutory exemptions. 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(4)(B). The court, in conducting this review, gives "substantial weight" to affidavits from the agency. Ray v. Turner, 587 F.2d 1187, 1193-94 (D.C. Cir. 1978). The agency can discharge this burden by providing a relatively detailed justification, specifically identifying the reasons why a particular exemption is relevant and correlating those claims with the particular part of a withheld document to which they apply. Torres v. C.I.A., 39 F.Supp.2d 960, 963 (N.D. 111. 1999); Vaughn v. Rosen (Vaughn I), 484 F.2d 820, 824-25 (D.C. Cir. 1973). The court may also require the release of reasonably segregable parts of documents that fall outside the FOIA exemptions. Turner, 587 F.2d at 1197.

         FOIA opens government records to private citizens and maintains a "policy of broad disclosure of Government documents in order to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society." F.B.L v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615, 621 (1982). FOIA requires "federal agencies to make Government records available to the public, subject to nine exemptions for specific categories of material." Milner v. Department of Navy, 562 U.S. 562, 564 (2011). Consistent with the statute's goal of broad disclosure, the exemptions are "explicitly made exclusive" and "given a narrow compass." Department of Justice v, Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 151 (1989). The FBI made redactions pursuant to several FOIA exemptions. However, the only exemptions at issue in this matter are Exemptions (b)(6) and (b)(7)(C).

         I. David Hardy's Affidavit

         Baker argues that Mr. David Hardy's affidavit contains conclusory opinions, parrots legal arguments, and poses only theoretical situations that could potentially arise. Hardy, Chief of the Record/Information Dissemination Section of the Records Management Division for the FBI, provided an affidavit in this matter to support the FBI's arguments for withholding the identifying information and names in dispute. The district court has discretion to decide a FOIA case on the basis of affidavits, and affidavits are in some cases sufficient. Nat'l Archives and Records Admin, v. Favish, 541 U.S. 157, 163 (2004). An affidavit submitted by the agency "must show, with reasonable specificity, why the documents fall within the exemption." Hayden v. Nat'l Sec. Agency/Cent. Sec. Serv., 608 F.2d 1381, 1387 (D.C. Cir. 1979). Also, the "affidavits will not suffice if they are too vague or sweeping." Id.

         Baker argues that Hardy has no basis to opine on this issue, is an attorney and has no actual experience conducting law enforcement operations, and only has experience working in the FBI's FOIA section. Baker also argues that Hardy's affidavit contains general statements about disclosure of information, but does not provide particularized analysis about the redactions at issue in the Watts investigation file. The FBI contends that Hardy has significant experience in evaluating matters at issue as he currently supervises approximately 250 employees and twelve FBI units. Hardy's affidavit is thorough, specific and comprehensive in explaining Baker's FOIA request. Hardy's affidavit contains 31 pages of detailed information regarding the FBI's methods for reviewing this FOIA request and an exhaustive discussion for withholding the sixty three pages at issue. Hardy and the FBI also consulted with the ATF and DEA concerning the redactions at issue. Stephanie Boucher, Chief of the ATF's Disclosure Division, submitted an affidavit supporting the claims asserted by Hardy and addressed the issues relating to ATF. Hardy's affidavit was coupled with exhibits, letters, memos, and other information, totaling 140 pages related to Baker's FOIA request. Due to Hardy's thorough analysis, specifically tailored issues regarding Baker's request, and comprehensive discussion of the redactions, this court finds that Hardy is qualified to opine on this specific matter and that his affidavit properly and sufficiently analyzes the specific redactions at issue.

         II. FOIA 5 U.S.C. ...


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