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White v. Department of Justice

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

January 19, 2018

WILLIAM A. WHITE, Plaintiff,



         This matter comes before the Court on the defendant Department of Justice's (“DOJ”) motions for partial summary judgment on plaintiff William A. White's claims that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”), the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (“FBI”) did not respond properly to some of his requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (Docs. 38 & 50). White has responded to the respective motions (Docs. 43 & 54). The DOJ has replied to one of White's responses (Docs. 48), and White has replied to that reply (Doc. 52). The Court also considers White's motion for sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(c) and 28 U.S.C. § 1927 based on the statements in the DOJ's first summary judgment motion (Doc. 46). The DOJ has responded to the motion (Doc. 49), and White has replied to that response, withdrawing some of the bases for his sanctions request (Doc. 53).

         As a preliminary matter, White includes with his response to the DOJ's first summary judgment motion a request for summary judgment on the same claims and others. The Court declines to consider White's response (Doc. 43) as a freestanding motion for summary judgment. Including more than one type of filing in a single document is not usually accepted by the Court because, as in this case, it is confusing. Additionally, construing a request in a responsive filing as a new motion threatens to open up briefing ad infinitum because each new request could commence a parade of sur-reply briefs disguised as regular responses. Here, the DOJ clearly did not view White's request for summary judgment as a separate motion, so it responded in a cursory fashion more akin to a reply brief without discussion or citation to evidence that would be appropriate in a response to a summary judgment motion. White's reply - really a sur-reply not permitted by the Court under Local Rule 7.1(c) - is equally devoid of material appropriate to summary judgment. For these reasons, the Court declines to consider White's response as a summary judgment motion and directs the Clerk of Court to terminate it (Doc. 43). The Court will allow White an additional brief period to file a motion for summary judgment on the merits to advance his arguments with respect to the claims involving the ATF and BOP.

         The Court now turns to the substance of the summary judgment motions.

         I. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment must be granted “if the movant shows that 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); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Spath v. Hayes Wheels Int'l-Ind., Inc., 211 F.3d 392, 396 (7th Cir. 2000). The reviewing court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Chelios v. Heavener, 520 F.3d 678, 685 (7th Cir. 2008); Spath, 211 F.3d at 396.

         The initial summary judgment burden of production is on the moving party to show the Court that there is no reason to have a trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323; Modrowski v. Pigatto, 712 F.3d 1166, 1168 (7th Cir. 2013). Where the non-moving party carries the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden of production in one of two ways. It may present evidence that affirmatively negates an essential element of the non-moving party's case, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A), or it may point to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the non-moving party's case without actually submitting any evidence, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(B). Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-25; Modrowski, 712 F.3d at 1169. Where the moving party fails to meet its strict burden, a court cannot enter summary judgment for the moving party even if the opposing party fails to present relevant evidence in response to the motion. Cooper v. Lane, 969 F.2d 368, 371 (7th Cir. 1992).

         In responding to a summary judgment motion, the nonmoving party may not simply rest upon the allegations contained in the pleadings but must present specific facts to show that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-26; Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256-57; Modrowski, 712 F.3d at 1168. A genuine issue of material fact is not demonstrated by the mere existence of “some alleged factual dispute between the parties, ” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247, or by “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rather, a genuine issue of material fact exists only if “a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the [nonmoving party] on the evidence presented.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.

         II. FOIA Generally

         White brings this lawsuit under FOIA, which the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently described generally:

“The basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242, 98 S.Ct. 2311, 57 L.Ed.2d 159 (1978). Toward that end, FOIA provides that agencies “shall make ... records promptly available to any person” who submits a request that “(i) reasonably describes such records and (ii) is made in accordance with [the agency's] published rules.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A). The Act is “broadly conceived, ” and its “basic policy” is in favor of disclosure. Robbins Tire, 437 U.S. at 220, 98 S.Ct. 2311. Agencies are, however, permitted to withhold records under nine statutory exemptions and three special exclusions for law-enforcement records. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)-(c).

Rubman v. United States Citizenship & Immigration Servs., 800 F.3d 381, 386 (7th Cir. 2015).

         White's challenges under FOIA fall into three categories:

• the agency “administratively defaulted” because it failed to respond to his requests at all, failed to respond within the time periods set forth in FOIA, or exceeded the permitted requests for clarification from the requesting party;
• the agency incorrectly denied having responsive records; and
• the agency improperly withheld responsive records pursuant to two statutory exemptions regarding invasion of personal privacy.

         The DOJ's summary judgment arguments likewise fall into three categories:

• White failed to exhaust his administrative remedies;
• White failed to state a viable FOIA theory; and
• White has abandoned or conceded certain claims.

         The Court will discuss each category of arguments and its application to the facts in turn. With respect to the facts set forth below, because the Court considers only the DOJ's summary judgment motions in this order, it has viewed the evidence and ...

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