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Ctr. for Immigr. Stud. v. USCIS, No. 22-00117, 2022 WL 4289561 (D.D.C. Sept. 16, 2022) (McFadden, J.)


Ctr. for Immigr. Stud. v. USCIS, No. 22-00117, 2022 WL 4289561 (D.D.C. Sept. 16, 2022) (McFadden, J.)

Re:  Request for all emails from three high-ranking officials at USCIS over course of approximately nine months

Disposition:  Granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment

  • Procedural Requirements, Searching for Responsive Records:  The court relates that “[t]his FOIA case presents a recurring problem:  A broadly worded request that yields a mountain of responsive documents at the cost of herculean efforts from the target agency.”  “[Plaintiff] requested all emails from three high-ranking officials at [USCIS] over the course of about nine months.”  “USCIS moves to dismiss the Complaint or for summary judgment, arguing that the burden from such capacious requests is too heavy to require a response.”  “The Court agrees.”  “Binding precedent in this circuit establishes that an agency need not respond to requests that entail an unduly burdensome effort of review, redaction, and production.”  “[Plaintiff’s] requests would require such an effort.”  The court finds that “[FOIA’s] statutory limitations require restraint by requesters.”  “Requesters may not make unreasonable demands of an agency, such as by seeking whatever document they want from whomever and wherever they choose.”  “Despite its seemingly boundless breadth, FOIA still ‘protect[s] agencies from undue burdens.’”  “And rightly so.”  “FOIA’s requester-friendly fee shifting provisions encourage requesters (particularly nonprofit ones) to submit broader and broader requests with taxpayers picking up the tab.”  “These ‘mismatched incentives’ only add burdens on agencies, and requesters often leverage those burdens.”  The court relates that “USCIS has collected over 1.6 million pages of responsive records.”  “These pages comprise all emails from January 1, 2021, to mid-October of the same year.”  “The agency estimates that it needs 8,151 hours to process so much material.”  “That equates to about 1,018 workdays – about two years and nine months.” “USCIS argues that the burden suggested by these numbers is too heavy and renders the requests ‘invalid.’”   The court observes that “[t]o begin, [plaintiff] questions those numbers.”  “It submitted the requests in June 2021 seeking emails from January 1, 2021, to ‘the present.’”  “[Plaintiff] reads that language as seeking only ‘four months’ of material, not the nine months worth that USCIS located.”  “Circuit precedent says otherwise.”  “The temporal scope of an open-ended request ends at the agency’s first search, . . . which occurred here in mid-October . . . .”  “So nine months is the applicable time under that precedent.”  “The Court therefore accepts the agency’s numbers for responsive pages and analyzes the burden stemming from those numbers.”  “Which brings [the court] to the heaviness of that burden.”  “USCIS first argues that, based solely on the years needed for processing, the burden is too heavy.”  “The Court ultimately agrees, but not because the agency invokes some talismanic number of hours, months, or years.”  The court explains that “burdensomeness does not boil down to a simple game of numbers.”  “That number is relevant but not necessarily dispositive.”  “Here, however, the burden is too high.”  “Not only will USCIS need thousands of hours, but that effort is ‘largely unnecessary to [plaintiff’s] purpose.’”  “More, the agency told [plaintiff] that the transfer of [the responsive] records ‘within USCIS’s network’ could ‘severely degrade [IT staff’s] normal business workload.’”  The court relates that “[plaintiff[ responds that USCIS reads the requests too broadly.”  “According to [plaintiff], a ‘reasonable interpretation’ would encompass only those emails ‘that the official was specifically involved in,’ not mass emails to many employees.”  “Perhaps, but the agency (and the Court) reads the requests as drafted, not as [plaintiff] ‘might wish [they were] drafted.’”  “They seek ‘all electronic records sent or received by’ the three staffers.”  “Nothing more.”  “That language on its face admits no carveouts or exceptions – it wants ‘all’ emails, regardless of their subject matter or number of recipients.”  “An alternative reading is simply unreasonable given the language's stark capaciousness.”  Overall, the court finds that “FOIA is an important tool for transparency and accountability, but it is not a blank check.”  “The Act still includes some ‘limits aimed at protecting agencies from undue burdens.’”  “As drafted, [plaintiff’s] requests would force USCIS to review and produce millions of pages.”  “And because [plaintiff] seeks office emails, many of those pages will discuss nothing of import to immigration, [plaintiff’s] alleged concern.”  “The Court establishes no bright line rules about when a request seeks too many irrelevant records as to be unduly burdensome.”  “[T]he juice is not worth the squeeze.”
Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Procedural Requirements, Searching for Responsive Records
Updated October 26, 2022