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Hum. Rights Def. Ctr. v. DOJ, No. 20-00674, 2024 WL 2302501 (W.D. Wash. May 21, 2024) (Chun, J.)


Hum. Rights Def. Ctr. v. DOJ, No. 20-00674, 2024 WL 2302501 (W.D. Wash. May 21, 2024) (Chun, J.)

Re:  Request for records of claims against DEA that DEA resolved through payment of settlement or judgment

Disposition:  Granting in part and denying in part plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment; granting in part and denying in part defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgment

  • Exemption 6; Exemption 7(C):  The court relates that “[i]n its renewed motion for summary judgment, [plaintiff] contends that the DEA has engaged in over-redaction of disclosable information from 16 files, in violation of the Court’s first summary judgment order.”  “These contested redactions fall into three categories:  (1) information contained in ‘publicly filed civil lawsuits’; (2) ‘narrative claim descriptions and non-private agency information such as job titles’; and (3) information that, according to [plaintiff], does not implicate a privacy interest because it has already been ‘widely publicized[.]’” 

    Regarding the first category of information, the court relates that “[a]ccording to [plaintiff], the DEA has redacted information under exemption 6, ‘which is related to publicly available court cases, such as court names, case numbers, judge names, attorney information, and litigant names[,]’ in four files . . . .”  “In response, the DEA says that the ‘redactions are wholly consistent’ with the Court’s first summary judgment order because it has disclosed the attorneys’ names at issue, but still protected their contact information and ‘also redacted the month and day of certain dates, disclosing only the year.’”  “The parties do not dispute that the Court has already directed the DEA to remove redactions related to information that appears elsewhere in publicly accessible documents but appear to disagree as to whether this list of items related to publicly disclosed cases was exhaustive.”  “Although the Court specifically directed the DEA to disclose case numbers, judge and attorney names, and litigant names, in its previous order, it did not specify that this should be an exhaustive list of publicly available items.”  “In line with the rationale of its previous order, the Court concludes that the DEA improperly invoked exemption 6 in redacting publicly available dates and attorney contact information connected to civil lawsuits.”  “As for the redacted names . . . , the DEA clarifies that the names at issue are several hundred ‘settlement fund recipients’ listed in an attachment to a publicly filed settlement agreement.”  “The DEA claims that these redactions are justified because:  (1) it could not confirm that these individuals were plaintiffs in the case associated with the file, (2) the ‘vast majority’ of the claimants were not DEA employees, and (3) ‘releasing their names would not further legitimate public interest[.]’”  “The Court is unpersuaded.”  “The Court’s prior summary judgment order recognized that individuals who have had their names publicly available in a public case docket have diminished privacy interests.”  “Although the DEA contends that these redacted names may not belong to DEA employees and it cannot confirm that these names even belong to litigants, the fact that the names already form a part of the public record establishes that the release of this information does not constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” 

    Regarding the second category of information, the court relates that “[plaintiff] challenges the DEA’s use of block redactions and other redactions of personal identifiers such as ‘titles, dates, locations, paygrades, [and] acronyms’ in ten files . . . .”  “[Plaintiff] says that the DEA’s reliance on exemption 6 to redact blocks of narrative and remove non-private identifiers, ‘without any segregation of “private” information,’ violates the Court’s first summary judgment order.”  First, regarding “‘a brief in support of a request for attorney fees in an administrative Merit Systems Protection Board proceeding,’” “[t]he Court denies [plaintiff’s] request regarding the redactions at issue.”  “The DEA’s explanation in the Vaughn index, corresponding declaration, and briefing, all show that it redacted [certain] items to protect the identity of the claimant discussed in the files.”  Second, regarding “a formal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) administrative complaint,” the court relates that “[t]he DEA asserts that removing its redactions of personal identifiers, which ‘consist of names of supervisors and coworkers, dates of specific events, job titles, office group names and descriptions, and similar information[,]’ would ‘lead to the identity of the claimant.’”  “The Court agrees with the DEA.”  “In its previous order, the Court concluded that private citizen claimants have cognizable privacy interests that outweigh the public interest served by disclosing their identities, allowing the DEA to invoke exemption 6 when redacting their names.”  “It follows that the disclosure of other identifying information in a claimant's administrative complaint – that could allow those familiar with the claimant’s broad circumstances the ability to deduce a claimant’s identity – is akin to the disclosure of the claimant’s name itself.”  “After review of the redacted pages and corresponding Vaughn index descriptions, the Court concludes that these redactions do not hinder the reader’s ability to comprehend the narrative description of the administrative complaint and help protect the claimant’s identity.”  Third, regarding “a formal EEO administrative complaint,” the court finds that “[c]onsidering the Court’s foregoing analysis of the need to protect private claimants’ personal identifying information, the DEA correctly redacted information of certain absences related to specific ‘personal family matters’ that do not bear on the narrative of the EEO claim.”  Fourth, regarding “two files [which] contain contested block redactions,” the court finds that, “[a]s discussed above, the DEA may redact private claimant’s names and identifying descriptors, however these contested block redactions are different from the previous files.”  “In both files, the block redactions remove entire paragraphs and do not leave any contextual clues or segregable information.”  “In its briefing, the DEA appears to contend that no portion of these redactions are non-exempt or can be reasonably segregated.”  “Yet because the briefing and Vaughn index descriptions that correspond to these files do not provide sufficient insight into the context of the redaction or why it does not contain any segregable portions, the Court directs the DEA to, within ten court days of this order, submit an unredacted versions of [these files] for in camera review.”  Fifth, the court relates that “[plaintiff] also contends that the DEA’s redactions of ‘non-private information, such as position titles, dates, locations, paygrades, and acronyms,’ in [an “EEOC decision,” an “attachment to formal EEO Allegations,” a “Merit Systems Protection Board appeal,” a “EEOC attachment,” and an “employment discrimination narrative”], are impermissible because the DEA’s ‘Vaughn index provides the same boilerplate explanation for all of these redactions.’”  The court finds that, “[a]s discussed, the DEA may redact names and other personal information that threaten to reveal the identity of private claimants.”  “While [plaintiff] contends that the exemption justifications in the Vaughn index are ‘boilerplate,’ the Court is not persuaded.”  “Although the DEA has provided the same short justification explanation for each redacted file, stating that these redactions fall under exemption 6 because they concern the claimant’s personally identifiable information that could reveal the claimant’s or a private third-party’s identity, the DEA did so because these redactions all serve the same purpose.”  “If this were the only information provided in the Vaughn index, then it might be considered ‘boilerplate,’ but the DEA has also included particularized descriptions of the items redacted.”

    Regarding the third category of information, the court relates that “[plaintiff] also says that the DEA has ‘redacted information regarding public matters to which no privacy interest attaches’ . . . ‘especially when weighed against the public’s right to know about how the DEA operates and addresses misconduct by its employees.’”  First, regarding “a non-public Merit Systems Protection Board settlement agreement related to the acquittal of a DEA employee in a criminal matter,” the court relates that “[plaintiff] contests the DEA’s redactions of the employee’s publicly available ‘date of acquittal’ and related information.”  “As discussed in the Court’s previous order, private citizen claimants have a ‘cognizable interest’ in preventing the disclosure of their identities and these interests are not outweighed by the public interest advanced in disclosing their names.”  “Although the private claimant here had their identity revealed in a criminal case, that does not mean that their identity should be revealed in a private administrative matter.”  “Because the disclosure of the claimant’s acquittal date could lead to the disclosure of this private claimant’s identity and does not necessarily ‘shed light on [the DEA’s] performance of its statutory duties or otherwise let citizens know what their government is up to[,]’ . . . the Court denies [plaintiff’s] disclosure request.”  Second, regarding “a non-public administrative EEO complaint that concerns a former DEA trainee ‘who failed an unspecified exam,’ ‘had some “progress and proficiency” concerns, and missed training days,’” “[t]he Court agrees with [plaintiff].”  “Because the DEA does not supply the Court with specific statistics regarding the number of enrollees in the Academy or its four training programs, the Court does not see how it may be ‘obvious practicality’ to redact this claimant’s enrollment information.”  “DEA’s argument that enrollment is ‘limited’ is vague and insufficient.”  “To be sure, as expressed in the Court’s previous summary judgment order, . . . this claimant has a cognizable privacy interest; but whether a claimant’s identity is compromised in this situation heavily depends on the number of female enrollees in the DEA Academy and its four training programs.”  “Without specific numbers of enrollees that participate at the DEA Academy, those that participated in the claimant’s program, or even how many failed out of the program in that year, the Court does not accept the DEA’s position that this information would necessarily identify the claimant to those familiar with her situation.”  “Because the DEA has not provided a declaration or Vaughn index ‘detailed enough for the district court to make a de novo assessment of the government’s claim of exemption[,]’ . . . the Court directs the DEA to submit a supplemental brief and a supporting declaration.”  Third, regarding “a non-public Merit Systems Protection Board claim,” the court finds that, “[a]s discussed, third-party claimants generally have a privacy interest in maintaining the status quo of not being personally identified in a non-public file.”  “But ‘individuals have diminished privacy interests in information that is already publicly available.’”  “Here, the two claimants named in the news article have diminished privacy interests because their names are already in the public domain.”  “Still, the Court recognizes a privacy interest in not disclosing the other DEA employee claimants’ identities for the simple reason that embarrassment, harassment, or retaliation may result in publicly disclosing that these claimants are linked to this third-party claimant’s non-public administrative case.”  “Recognizing that the two claimants have cognizable privacy interests, the Court must then consider whether these interests are outweighed by the public interest advanced in disclosing these names.”  “The Court recognizes that the release of the details of a publicly available news article would ‘shed light on [the DEA’s] performance of its statutory duties or otherwise let citizens know what their government is up to.’”  “Here, [plaintiff] does not seek the disclosure of the names of the private claimant associated with this non-public file but asks the DEA to disclose the name of a publication already in the public sphere that identifies two other claimants that have already been publicly identified.”  “The DEA appears to contend that disclosure of this news article would compromise the privacy interests of the two already-public claimants mentioned in it because their identities would be linked with this [file’s] private claimant, but the Court does not view it the same way.”  “Considering the DEA has protected the private claimant’s name and identifying information with redactions throughout the file, it is unclear how the disclosure of the news article, and subsequent disclosure of the identity of two other claimants, could necessarily threaten the private claimant’s identity; the Court also notes that the DEA does not contend that this private claimant is named in the article itself.”  “Because (1) the two other claimants have diminished privacy interests since their names are already public, (2) the still-anonymous private claimant has had all identifying features redacted, and (3) there is a public interest in ‘knowing what [the DEA] is up to,’ the Court concludes that the DEA improperly invoked exemption 6 in redacting this information.”  Fourth, regarding “a formal EEO administrative complaint, which is also discussed above,” “[t]he Court agrees with the DEA.”  “Even assuming, without deciding, that the email correspondence was distributed throughout the DEA, this type of internal agency communication is not equivalent to the public disclosure that accompanies a publicly accessible news article.”  “Because this email does not qualify as ‘non-private information,’ the Court concludes that the DEA correctly invoked exemption 6 in its redaction.”
Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Exemption 6
Exemption 7(C)
Updated June 24, 2024