Eli v. DEA, No. 16-2359, 2017 WL 6546193 (1st Cir. Dec. 22, 2017) (Lynch, J.)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Eli v. DEA, No. 16-2359, 2017 WL 6546193 (1st Cir. Dec. 22, 2017) (Lynch, J.)

Re: Request for medical records of living former patients, and death-related records of deceased former patients, of physician who was convicted of drug-related charges for illegally prescribing pain medication

Disposition: Reversing district court's grant of requester's motion for summary judgment; remanding and directing district court to enter summary judgment in government's favor

  • Exemption 7(C):  The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit "hold[s] that FOIA Exemption 7(C) permits the DEA to withhold the medical and death-related records at issue in their entirety."  First, the court notes that "[n]either party disputes that there were legitimate privacy interests at stake."  The court explains that "[i]t is uncontested that [the convicted physician's] living former patients have significant privacy interests in their medical records, which [the court has] described as 'highly personal' and 'intimate in nature.'"  "And it is undisputed that the prior disclosure of these records as trial exhibits does not diminish the privacy interests of the former patients in the records."  Additionally, the court finds that "both [the requester] and the district court failed to acknowledge the distinct privacy interests of the relatives of [the convicted physician's] deceased patients in the deceased patients' death-related records."  Against those concerns, the court finds that, "[g]iven the wealth of information that he already has access to, [the requester] fails to satisfy his burden of showing that the withheld medical and death-related records – which relate only to the subset of patients that the government believes can be identified using the trial testimony – would shed any additional light on either the DEA's investigatory conduct in [the convicted physician's] case or the DEA's execution of its statutory mandate more generally."  Finally, the court finds that, "[i]n balancing the public interest in disclosure with the privacy interests implicated by the requested records, the district court applied the wrong standard."  "In particular, it stated that '[o]nly the most compelling showing can justify post-trial restriction on disclosure of testimony or documents actually introduced at trial[.]'"  The court finds that it is "inappropriate for the district court, in conducting the requisite balancing of interests, to invoke a disclosure-favoring standard based on a common law presumption divorced from the FOIA statutory framework."
  • Procedural Requirements, "Reasonably Segregable" Obligation:  The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit relates that "[t]he district court attempted to protect the privacy interests implicated by [the requester's] request by allowing the government to redact exhibit numbers and personally identifiable information from the requested records[,]" however, the court finds that "[t]he permitted redactions do not adequately protect the privacy interests implicated by [the requester's] request."

    Judge Torruella writes separately to "disagree that [the court] should order the district court to enter summary judgment in favor of the DEA when we cannot be sure of the extent to which the documents [the requester] seeks implicate their subjects' privacy."  Judge Torruella explains that "is also a factual question inappropriate for [the court] to resolve at this procedural juncture."  "This, after all, is an appeal from the district court's ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment."  "And, summary judgment is improper when there exists a genuine dispute of material fact."
District Court
Exemption 7C
Updated August 2, 2018