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Judicial Watch, Inc. v. DOJ, No. 14-5215, 2016 WL 556675 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 12, 2016) (Ginsburg, S.C.J.)

Date

Judicial Watch, Inc. v. DOJ, No. 14-5215, 2016 WL 556675 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 12, 2016) (Ginsburg, S.C.J.)

Re: Request for settlement discussions between DOJ and House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

Disposition: Vacating district court's grant of appellee's motion for summary judgment; remanding for further proceedings

  • Procedural Requirements:  The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit "vacate[s] the judgment of the district court and remand this matter to Judge Leon in order to give the Department an opportunity to seek clarification from Judge Jackson regarding the intended effect and scope of her order."  The court relates that "[t]he test for determining whether an agency has improperly withheld records placed under seal by a court is 'whether the seal, like an injunction, prohibits the agency from disclosing the records.'"  The court finds that "[t]he government has not carried its burden in this case."  "First, Judge Jackson's statement, 'I don't want to know,' clearly bars the parties from divulging the contents of their settlement discussions only to her; a broader bar, if any, would have to be inferred for it is not explicit."  "The Department offers a good reason Judge Jackson might have wanted to prohibit disclosure to third-parties—because protection from disclosure promotes more open dialogue during settlement—but there is no extrinsic evidence that was what the judge intended; indeed, that concern is nowhere mentioned in the record in this case, and it is equally plausible that Judge Jackson wanted simply to preserve her objectivity in case she ultimately were to preside over a trial."  "Nor has the Department pointed to extrinsic evidence, such as information that the district court customarily protects the confidentiality of settlement discussions before a case is referred to mediation, that supports its preferred reading."  The court finds that "[a]n ambiguous court order does not protect a record from disclosure pursuant to the FOIA."

Additionally, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit relates that "[t]he district court held, in the alternative, that disclosure was prohibited by its Local Rule 84.9," which "prohibits the mediator, all counsel and parties and any other persons attending the mediation from disclosing any written or oral communications made in connection with or during any mediation session."  The court finds that "it is not established whether Local Rule 84.9, if it applies, would resolve the FOIA question because local rules do not clearly fit within a recognized FOIA exemption."  "On the one hand, a district court's interpretation of its own rules is, as the Department argues, entitled to deference."  "On the other hand, Local Rule 84(b) explicitly provides that '[t]hese Rules apply only to mediation proceedings that are formally conducted through the United States District Court's Mediation Program.'"  However, the court finds that "[r]esolution of this apparent conflict may be unnecessary depending upon whether Judge Jackson intended her order to bar disclosure."  "Accordingly, we need not resolve the question now and depending upon further proceedings in the district court, may not have to do so later."

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Updated January 24, 2022