Cornucopia Inst. v. Agric. Mktg. Serv., No. 16-2252, 2018 WL 354651 (D.D.C. Jan. 10, 2018) (Jackson, J.)

Date: 
Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Cornucopia Inst. v. Agric. Mktg. Serv., No. 16-2252, 2018 WL 354651 (D.D.C. Jan. 10, 2018) (Jackson, J.)

Re: Request for certain applications submitted for vacancies open on National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)

Disposition: Granting plaintiff's motion for attorney fees; awarding plaintiff $9,723.75 in attorney fees, $2,000.00 in fees-on-fees, and $422.08 in costs

  • Attorney Fees, Eligibility:  "[T]he Court finds that the plaintiff substantially prevailed in this case and is therefore eligible for an award of attorneys' fees."  The court notes that "[t]his is a close question."  "It is clear[, as defendant claims,] that the ["recent appointments [which] marked the end of its application process"] played some role in the agency's change of position [on Exemption 5]."  "But it is also true that the change came shortly after plaintiff filed its lawsuit, and while communications between the parties were underway."  "Therefore, while it cannot be said that the filing of the lawsuit was the sole basis for the agency's change in position, there was a substantial causal connection."  Additionally, "[t]o the extent that the lawsuit gave voice to the public's interest in this information, the Court finds that it played a role in the agency's decision to disclose that information."  "Based on all of those circumstances, the Court finds that the lawsuit did in fact prompt the release of responsive records."
     
  • Attorney Fees, Entitlement:  "[B]ecause three out of the four factors favor plaintiff, the Court finds that plaintiff is entitled to recover attorneys' fees."  Regarding the first factor, the court finds that, "[a]s already discussed, the litigation spurred the agency to produce responsive records."  "And as to the 'potential public value' of the information the Court agrees with plaintiff that the documents add to the public knowledge, albeit to a limited degree."  Regarding the second and third factors, the court finds that "Plaintiff is a non-profit public interest organization, . . . that sought documents from defendant 'for public informational purposes' only and did not derive a commercial benefit."  Regarding the fourth factor, the court finds that "[defendant's] position [that it "initially declined to release any information related to plaintiff's FOIA request because it claimed the information was protected under Exemption 5, since the applications were still under review at the time of the FOIA request, and under Exemption 6, because the applications contained personal information"] certainly had a 'colorable basis in law' and there is no evidence that the agency was recalcitrant or acted in bad faith."
     
  • Attorney Fees, Calculations:  "[T]he Court finds that the total fee request is unreasonable because an undue portion of it derives from time billed for litigating and mediating the amount of attorneys' fees, rather than the merits of the underlying FOIA action."  "Furthermore, the merits themselves were resolved quickly in a straightforward manner, with no need for additional briefing, and, as noted above, the change in circumstances also played a role in the agency's decision to release the material."  Therefore, "the Court will reduce the fees-on-fees component of the fee award[]" and also "will reduce the award for time billed on the merits[]."
Topic: 
Attorney Fees
District Court
Updated July 5, 2018