Thursday, June 20, 2013
Re: Appeal from district court's denial of plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees Disposition: Granting plaintiff's appeal, vacating district court's order, and remanding case
- Attorneys' Fees, Eligibility: The Court vacates the district court's order and remands the case where plaintiff made a FOIA request and sued defendant prior to the passage of the Open Government Act, but the majority of the processing of the request took place after the passage of the Open Government Act. The Court first notes that "the attorney-fee inquiry [requires consideration of] two prongs[:] ... fee eligibility and fee entitlement." The Court "review[s] [the] district court's denial of attorneys' fees for abuse of discretion, assessing fact findings for clear error and legal conclusions de novo." The Court specifically "review[s] de novo the district court's legal conclusion that [plaintiff] does not enjoy the benefit of the [Open Government Act]." The Court finds that "this case does not involve retroactive application." The Court explains that "here, most of the relevant events took place after the effective date." "Although [plaintiff] sued in September 2007, [defendant] was not properly served until January 2008—after the [Open Government Act]'s effective date." "[Defendant] failed to produce a single document or take any other action other than issuing delay letters until after it was served in January 2008." "Thus, other than the original FOIA request and the filing of the lawsuit, all relevant events took place after the OGA's effective date." Therefore, the Court "conclude[s] that the [Open Government Act] applies to this case." Applying the Open Government Act to these proceedings leads the Court "to conclude that [plaintiff] substantially prevailed." "Only after he filed and served this lawsuit did [defendant] first begin to produce a fraction of the responsive documents, with reticence to provide even a Vaughn index." "The remaining documents still were not produced for years following further litigation." The Court remands the case because the "entitlement assessment is a matter directed to the discretion of the district court which should make its assessment against the backdrop of the treble policies of the FOIA attorneys'-fees provision in (1) incentivizing private litigants to pursue their claims by providing a means of overcoming barriers 'that government may erect in an effort to escape compliance with the law'; (2) 'deter[ring] the government from opposing justifiable requests'; and (3) 'punish[ing] the government where such opposition is unreasonable.'"
Court of Appeals
Updated August 6, 2014