Davidson v. Dep't of State, No. 14-1358, 2016 WL 4594224 (D.D.C. Sept. 2, 2016) (Contreras, J.)
Re: Request for records concerning defendant's handling of plaintiff's request for assistance
Disposition: Granting in part and denying in part defendant's motion for summary judgment
- Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search: The court denies defendant's motion for summary judgment. The court first finds that "the Department has provided a declaration that shows an organized and thorough search of several of its offices and records systems." "For each office or record system, the Department's declaration explains who conducted the search and the specific databases searched." "And for almost all of the electronic searches, the declaration identifies the search terms used." However, "because [plaintiff] identified other potential sources of responsive records, . . . the Department must explain why those sources would not produce additional responsive records[.]" "Because the Department has not done so . . . the Court must deny the Department's motion for summary judgment on the issue of the adequacy of the Department's search for responsive records."
- Litigation Considerations, Vaughn Index/Declaration: "[T]he Court finds that the Department's Vaughn Index is deficient in a critical way: the index does not provide the Court with a description of each of the responsive records that the Department contends that it found through its searches." "Because of its failure to describe or address many of the records that the Department states were released in part or withheld in full, the Department's Vaughn Index does not provide the Court with descriptions that would 'permit adversary testing of the [Department's] claimed right to an exemption.'" "The Court accordingly must deny the Department's motion for summary judgment so far as it relates to withholdings not described in its Vaughn Index." However, "[t]o move the remaining issues in this case forward, the Court will address the Department's . . . FOIA withholdings in the context of the (perhaps inadequate) searches that it conducted, and in the context of the documents that its (incomplete) Vaughn Index describes."
- Exemption 5, Deliberative Process Privilege: "[T]he Court determines that the Department's Exemption 5 withholdings involve predecisional and deliberative materials for which the Department justifiably invoked the deliberative process privilege." "The withheld materials, as described, are all Department communications that came before and that deliberate Department action on [plaintiff's] request for commercial advocacy, on his request for a letter about a telephone conversation, and on his lawsuit." "Because the deliberative process privilege protects [these] materials from disclosure, the Court will award the Department summary judgment on the Exemption 5 withholdings that it currently asserts in its Vaughn Index." Addressing plaintiff's arguments, the court finds that "[t]he record thus provides no indication that the Department failed to disclose any segregable factual material" and "the deliberative process privilege's characteristic of being 'a qualified privilege' is 'not an issue in FOIA cases.'"
- Exemption 6: "Because . . . knowledge [of employee names and contact information] would reveal 'little or nothing' more about the Department's conduct than the other information released to [plaintiff], . . . and because [plaintiff] has made no argument asserting a public interest in knowing the employees' names and contact information . . . the Court determines that no public interest exists to justify disclosure of the employees' names and contact information." "On that basis, the Court determines that the employees' interest in keeping that information private outweighs any public interest in disclosure, and the Court will grant the Department's motion for summary judgment on the Exemption 6 withholdings that it asserted in its Vaughn Index."