Airaj v. Dep't of State, No. 15-983, 2016 WL 1698260 (D.D.C. Apr. 27, 2016) (Huvelle, J.)
Re: Request for records concerning State Department's decision not to grant Chief of Mission approval for plaintiff to apply for Special Immigrant Visa
Disposition: Granting defendant's motion for summary judgment; denying plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment
- Procedural Requirements, Time Limits: The court holds that "[w]hile timely access to governmental records is an essential part of FOIA's statutory purpose, the Court is unaware of any legal authority that has enforced FOIA's time requirements by granting summary judgment to a plaintiff" based on the timeliness of defendant's response. The court finds that "defendant here not only acknowledged the request fairly promptly, but also immediately raised the possibility of 'unusual circumstances' delaying the production of responsive documents." "Moreover, defendant actually did produce responsive documents well before plaintiff filed his lawsuit." "In short, the Court finds that [defendant] was reasonably fair and expeditious in responding to plaintiff's FOIA request, and that there is no legal or factual basis for entering judgment in plaintiff's favor."
- Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search: "The Court finds that [defendant's] Declaration's description of the offices searched, the breadth of databases and electronic record systems searched, and the terms used by officials familiar with the document storage systems amply demonstrate that defendant conducted a search reasonably calculated to uncover all responsive and relevant documents." Responding to plaintiff's arguments, the court finds that "[f]irst, the adequacy of a search is not determined by the initial results, but rather, by the totality of defendant’s efforts to locate and respond to a FOIA request." "In fact, the D.C. Circuit has held that the performance of additional searches following an agency's initial response to a FOIA request not only does not discredit the original search, but to the contrary, actually indicates good faith and 'suggest[s] a stronger...basis for accepting the integrity of the search.'" "Second, plaintiff's argument is particularly unconvincing given that he made no mention of [a document which would have prompted a search in a specific location] until his administrative appeal in 2015, after defendant had already conducted its first round of searches." The court explains that "[a]lthough plaintiff is correct that an agency has a duty to construe FOIA requests liberally, . . . it is also true that a requester has a duty to reasonably describe the records sought." Third, the court finds that "'[t]he adequacy of a FOIA search,' however, 'is generally determined not by the fruits of the search, but by the appropriateness of the methods used to carry out the search.'"
- Exemption 3: "The Court . . . finds the four Embassy documents to be subject to [the Immigration and Nationality Act] § 222(f), and thus exempt from disclosure under FOIA Exemption 3." The court relates that "the Government contends that the four documents at issue are exempt from disclosure pursuant to the [Immigration and Nationality Act]," 8 U.S.C. § 1202(f), "which encompasses records 'pertaining' to the issuance or refusal of visas." The court finds that, "[i]n the context of the Special Immigrant Visa program created by Congress in the [Afghan Allies Protection Act], it strains credulity to view [Chief of Mission] approval as anything but 'pertain [ing]' to the issuance of a Special Immigrant visa." The court finds that "[Chief of Mission] approval is clearly part of the Special Immigrant Visa application process."
- Exemptions 6 & 7(C): "The Court . . . agrees that defendant has properly withheld the name of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Special Agent under Exemptions 6 and 7(C)." The court finds that "[p]laintiff has failed to demonstrate how the disclosure of the identity of the diplomatic security official would serve the public interest, whereas the diplomatic security agent has a significant privacy interest at stake." "As defendant notes, the public identification of a diplomatic security agent 'could result in unwanted attention and harassment' of the employee."
- Procedural Requirements, "Reasonably Segregable" Obligation: The court finds that "[d]efendant's in camera submission of the full, unredacted Embassy documents clearly demonstrates that it has only withheld the exempt portions of the documents, and thus defendant has adequately carried its burden to segregate all meaningful information not covered by the FOIA exemptions."