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Human Rights Watch v. BOP, No. 13-7360, 2015 WL 5459713 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 16, 2015) (Oetken, J.)


Human Rights Watch v. BOP, No. 13-7360, 2015 WL 5459713 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 16, 2015) (Oetken, J.)

Re: Request for records concerning detention conditions of individuals charged with or convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses

Disposition: Granting in part and denying in part defendant's motion for summary judgment; granting in part and denying in part plaintiff's motion for summary judgment

  • Exemption 7, Threshold:  The court holds that Exemption 7's threshold is met here.  Regarding information withheld from certain spreadsheets which contain information on the inmates housed in Communications Management Units, the court finds that, the withheld portions, "[Security Threat Group] assignments[,] are 'a tool used to monitor and track inmates who pose unique security threats,' such as 'associations with gangs or terrorist organizations and sex offender status.'"  "This kind of monitoring and tracking is classic proactive activity undertaken to 'prevent criminal activity and maintain security.'"  Regarding Special Administrative Measures memoranda, the court holds that "[t]hey concern the Attorney General's decisions to impose, administer, and renew SAMs under . . . regulations [which] permit the imposition of SAMs 'that are reasonably necessary to prevent disclosure of classified information,' . . . or 'that are reasonably necessary to protect persons against the risk of death or serious bodily injury.'"  Overall, while the court rejects defendant's contention that "all BOP records are per se compiled for law enforcement purposes[,]" the court also rejects plaintiff's argument that "[r]ecords of BOP's routine prison administration and inmate monitoring . . . are not related to any investigation into violations of the law."
  • Exemption 7(C):  The court finds that "[t]he Government is ordered to release versions of the SAM memos without redactions for the U.S. Attorney's Office handling each case."  However, the court finds the remainder of defendant's use of Exemption 7(C) appropriate.  Regarding the privacy interests at issue, the court holds that "[t]he Government has demonstrated that the privacy interests at stake are substantial."  The court explains that, for the information in the spreadsheets, "many inmates in the CMU are not known to be in the CMU by the general public" and "anyone who knows that a particular individual is in a CMU . . . may be able to identify the inmate's row of the spreadsheet based on the already-released information, like citizenship and sentence."  "The privacy interests at stake [regarding the SAM assignments] are similar to those at issue for the CMU spreadsheets." 

Regarding the public interest, the court finds that "[f]or most of the redacted information in the CMU spreadsheets, the incremental public interest at stake is relatively slight."  The court explains that "there is no evidence that [this information] is a significant factor, much less a significant factor in a way not otherwise captured by [an unredacted] column."  Similarly, "release of that information may help the public better understand the SAM program's operation."  "But [plaintiff] has not articulated why the information released is incrementally valuable, beyond concerns that the extant information is too vague and a general statement of its use in 'further investigation.'"

Therefore, the court finds that the government correctly withheld the portions of the CMU spreadsheets at issue, as well as certain sections of the SAM assignments.  However, the court also finds that "[t]he balance tips in the opposite direction with regard to a final type of information: the U.S. Attorney's Office handling each case."  The court finds that "[r]elease of this information will help the public understand 'what' specific institutions of 'the Government is up to'—specifically, which parts of the Government are seeking SAMs, and how often."

  • Procedural Requirements, "Reasonably Segregable" Obligation:  The court holds that "[t]he Government has not demonstrated that it has released all of the 'reasonably segregable' information."  The court finds that "[certain] columns [in the spreadsheets] either contain only exempt information or information that cannot be segregated: for the Government to release the STG column, for example, except where it includes information about gang membership is for the Government to flag all gang members."  "The Comments column, however, likely contains some nonexempt information segregable from exempt information."  "Presumably, some information in the column falls within the privacy exemptions, but some does not."
  • Exemption 6:  The court holds that "[t]he Government must provide versions of the religious accommodations records without redactions for inmate job and cell assignments."  However, the court finds that Exemption 6 was properly applied to the remainder of the information at issue.  The court first finds that "religious accommodation documents" do not meet Exemption 7's threshold because "[r]esponses to requests for religious accommodation concern routine issues of prison administration, and any Government purpose of preventing criminal activity or maintaining public security is attenuated."  The court then finds that these records "satisfy the Exemption 6 threshold" because "[t]hey are maintained in inmates' Central Files with BOP and contain information about individual inmates' religious accommodation requests and BOP's responses to those requests."  Though most of the withheld material was correctly withheld under Exemption 6, the court finds that while, "[a]s to inmate job and cell assignments, the Government is undoubtedly correct that that information is substantially likely to be identifying, at least to other inmates[,]" "[plaintiff] . . . explains that this information advances the public interest" because "BOP officials 'may be imposing special burdens on Muslim inmates as retaliation.'"
  • Exemption 3:  "[H]aving reviewed the ex parte declaration, the Court is satisfied that Exemption 3 applies to the redaction from the Key Indicators documents."  "The Court also agrees with the Government that redaction of the statute requiring this withholding is justified."
  • Procedural Requirements, Searching for Responsive Records:  In response to plaintiff's argument, the court relates that "the Government redacted generally at the page- and paragraph-level information" which is "clearly outside the scope of this FOIA request."  The court finds that "[i]t is 'common sense' that allowing withholding of large pieces of otherwise-responsive records 'avoids routine, potentially wasteful disclosure of enormous amounts of material that bear no relationship whatsoever to the focus of a FOIA request.'"
Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Exemption 3
Exemption 6
Exemption 7
Exemption 7(C)
Exemption 7, Threshold
Procedural Requirements, Searching for Responsive Records
Procedural Requirements, “Reasonably Segregable” Obligation
Updated January 12, 2022