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Reasonably Described Records

Court of Appeals Decisions

Wells v. U.S. Dep't of Educ. Off. for Civ. Rts., No. 11-30686, 2011 WL 5840221 (5th Cir. Nov. 21, 2011) (per curiam). Holding: Affirming the district court's dismissal of plaintiffs' Complaint. The Fifth Circuit affirms the district court's dismissal of plaintiffs' Complaint. Noting that the "FOIA requires that those seeking records from a government agency 'reasonably describe [] such records' sought," the Fifth Circuit rules that since it "cannot decipher which records the Appellants are seeking, [it] cannot say that the district court abused its discretion in dismissing the suit on this basis."

District Court Decisions

National Security Counselors v. CIA, Nos. 11-443, 11-444, 11-445, 2012 WL 4903377 (D.D.C. Oct. 17, 2012) (Howell, J.). Holding: Concluding that plaintiff has standing to pursue certain claims under FOIA and the APA; granting CIA's motion to dismiss on certain claims and denying CIA's motion to dismiss for certain claims. The plaintiff alleges that the defendant has a policy or practice of "applying a definition of the FOIA's 'reasonably describes' requirement that 'is significantly and consistently broader than is allowed by the FOIA.'" The court determines that the "FOIA permits agencies to consider the configuration of their record systems in deciding whether a FOIA request 'reasonably describes' the records sought" because "[i]t would be unreasonable to require agencies to throw practical considerations to the wind in deciding whether they can process FOIA requests." Additionally, "short of a categorical refusal to process any requests that contain the[] phrases ["pertaining to," "related to," or "relating to"], an agency is permitted to assess the language of each FOIA request that it receives in order to determine whether it 'reasonably describes' the records it seeks."

Freedom Watch, Inc. v. CIA, No. 12-0721, 2012 WL 4753281 (D.D.C. Oct. 5, 2012) (Huvelle, J.). Holding: Granting defendants' motion to dismiss. The court also concludes that plaintiff's request was not reasonably described. "On its face [plaintiff's] FOIA requests are virtually incomprehensible and are 'so broad as to impose an unreasonable burden upon the agency.'" The court notes that the request would "include anything 'relating to' the individual nations referenced in [three articles], which include Iran, Israel, Iraq, North Korea, Russia, Azerbaijan, and others." Likewise, a request for all information about a 2010 National Intelligence Estimate is "extraordinarily broad standing alone" and "only one of 49 similarly vague inquiries." The court also agrees with the defendants that the request fails to define the term "leaks" and would require "federal employees to make complicated determinations about whether crimes have been committed."

Moore v. FBI, No. 11-1067, 2012 WL 3264566 (D.D.C. Aug.13, 2012) (Kollar-Kotelly, J.). Holding: Dismissing complaint against the Executive Office of the President under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6); granting, as conceded, the Criminal Division and U.S. Parole Commission's motions for summary judgment; and granting FBI and CIA's motions for summary judgment based on the adequacy of their searches and the CIA's assertion of the Glomar response in conjunction with Exemptions 1 and 3; and granting BOP and EOUSA's motions for summary judgment on the basis that plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. The court determines that plaintiff's request to the CIA "for 'information to make easier to locate consciousness-altering technology, or behavioral modification techniques, information regarding the program' is not reasonably descriptive to trigger the CIA's disclosure obligations."

Jean-Pierre v. BOP, No. 12-78, 2012 WL 3065377 (D.D.C. July 30, 2012) (Huvelle, J.). Holding: Granting BOP's motion to dismiss on grounds that plaintiff failed to state a claim where he did not comply with agency regulations, submit a reasonably described request, and failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. The court determines that "plaintiff's pure requests for information do not constitute [requests for] 'records' under FOIA." With respect to one question posed by plaintiff, the court finds that "because it seeks a rationale or explanation [for a prison transfer], [it] is not within FOIA's scope." As to two other questions, the court determines that "although they request more objective pieces of information – 'who gave the order' to transfer plaintiff, and 'on what day' did prison officials call a particular federal agent to come see him – are also not cognizable under FOIA, because they ask questions calling for specific pieces of information rather than records."

Rodriguez-Cervantes v. HHS, No. 11-1387, 2012 WL 1142552 (D.D.C. Apr. 6, 2012) (Boasberg,J.). Holding: Granting SSA's motion for summary judgment on the basis that plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies where he did not submit a FOIA request to the agency, but merely requested documents in the course of this litigation. The court grants defendants' motion for summary judgment on the basis that plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies where he did not submit a FOIA request, but merely initiated the instant action. Reviewing plaintiff's correspondence with the agency, the court concludes that plaintiff's letter to SSA asking if "'there is any way/application to get [his] social security benefits before the age established by [SSA] policies'" does not constitute a reasonably described request for agency records under the FOIA because it "contains no explicit or even implicit request for the production of any records." Similarly, the court determines that "neither of Plaintiff's two other letters to SSA was a FOIA request or anything that could be liberally construed to amount to a request for records," but rather notes that this correspondence "merely pose[s] questions to SSA or ask[s] for assistance in applying for social security benefits." Further, the court notes that plaintiff himself "admits that he has no FOIA request before SSA."

Parker v. DOJ, No. 10-2068, 2012 WL 1038615 (D.D.C. Mar. 29, 2012) (Jackson,J.). Holding: Denying, without prejudice, EOUSA's motion for summary judgment; ordering EOUSA to supplement the record as to the adequacy of its search, and its claims of exemption, and concluding that one of plaintiff's requests is reasonably described and must be processed; and denying plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment as moot. The court concludes that EOUSA failed to respond to one of plaintiff's requests for documents "related to DOJ's policies regarding unauthorized practice of law by Assistant U.S. Attorneys, specifically, any remedial policies." Although EOUSA asserted that the request was not reasonably described, the court finds that it is "clear enough to constitute a valid FOIA request." Additionally, the court notes that, under DOJ's regulations EOUSA cannot "deny[] a request simply because it is unclear," but rather must give the requester notice and an opportunity to modify the request.

Truesdale v. DOJ, No. 08-1862, 2010 WL 3199939 (D.D.C. Aug. 13, 2010) (Friedman, J.). The court declines to consider whether plaintiff's request reasonably describes the records sought where plaintiff alleges that his request was intended for the Office of the United States Attorney General, rather than the recipient of the request, BOP. Plaintiff asserts that "the description set forth in his request [which was submitted to the Justice Management Division's Mail Referral Unit] 'is sufficient for the United States Attorney General or a professional employee that work[s] in the [Attorney General's Office] who is familiar with the subject area of the request to locate the records with a reasonable amount of effort.'" The court finds that DOJ failed to "explain the route by which plaintiff's . . . letter, apparently sent to the Attorney General, made its way to the BOP or to indicate whether the Referral Unit forwarded the request to the BOP and/or another DOJ component." The court notes that "[a]ssuming that the DOJ Referral Unit staff did refer plaintiff's request to the BOP, defendant does not articulate its interpretation of the request or otherwise explain why the BOP was deemed the component best able to process the request, whether it also sent the request to any other component, and if not, why not." Accordingly, "[t]he Court cannot determine on the current record whether the DOJ has improperly withheld records responsive to [plaintiff's request]."

Wilson v. DOT, No. 09-1748, 2010 WL 3184300 (D.D.C. Aug. 11, 2010) (Collyer, J.). The court finds that the agency's search was not unreasonably limited where "[b]ecause of the ambiguity of the request, the [Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)] sought clarification by proposing a reasonable interpretation of its scope" and plaintiff agreed to that interpretation. Additionally, the court finds that DOT's declaration adequately explains why the survey comments submitted by employees of OCFO cannot be "culled out from the hundreds of comments submitted by all other FHWA employees." The court notes that "the records that [plaintiff] requests simply do not exist in the format that he requests them" and that "[i]t would be 'unduly burdensome,' if not impossible for the FHWA to identify the records responsive to [his] request." Additionally, the court concludes that FHWA's interpretation of plaintiff's FOIA request for "all EEO complaints" as "seeking formal complaints, instead of informal records such as counseling logs" was reasonable. To the extent the FWHA processed EEO counseling logs, the court notes that plaintiff "has not introduced any evidence to contradict DOT's assertion that [] redacted information [related to pre-complaint informal counseling] falls outside the scope of his request."

Exxon Mobil Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Interior, No. 09-6732, 2010 WL 2653353 (E.D. La. June 29, 2010) (McNamara, J.). The court concludes that plaintiff's requests seeking "'any and all documents,' 'any documents,' or 'all documents' . . . are "impermissibly broad and do not comply with FOIA's requirement that the request for records 'reasonably describe[] such records.'"

Schmidt v. Shah, No. 08-2185, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25539 (D.D.C. Mar. 18, 2010) (Kollar-Kotelly, J.). Defendant appropriately determined that plaintiff's requests for documents that might reflect any "'possible violations of FAR 16.505'" since 1995 were vague and overbroad. These requests "would require the agency to 'locate, review, redact, and arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material.' . . . In addition, the agency would need to make a complicated judgment call in order to determine what records might indicate a 'possible violation' of fair opportunity provisions."


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