Morley v. CIA, No. 17-5114, 2018 WL 3351383 (D.C. Cir. July 9, 2018) (Henderson, J., Kavanaugh, J., Katsas, J.)

Monday, July 9, 2018

Morley v. CIA, No. 17-5114, 2018 WL 3351383 (D.C. Cir. July 9, 2018) (Henderson, J., Kavanaugh, J., Katsas, J.)

Re:  Records pertaining to deceased CIA officer

Disposition:  Affirming district court's denial of requester's motion for attorney fees

  • Attorney Fees: The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit explains that it "review[s] the district court's attorney's fees determination only for abuse of discretion."  The four factors the D.C. Circuit considers are: "(i) the public benefit from the case; (ii) the commercial benefit to the plaintiff; (iii) the nature of the plaintiff’s interest in the records; and (iv) the reasonableness of the agency's withholding of the requested documents."  The court states "when the four factors point in different directions, the district court has very broad discretion in deciding how to balance those factors and whether to award attorney's fees." 

    The D.C. Circuit focuses its analysis on the fourth factor.  In responding to the plaintiff's arguments, the court explains that "the statute does not suggest that an award of attorney's fees should be automatic [when the agency fails to respond with the FOIA's 20-day deadline]."  Further, the court finds that "the CIA's decision to direct [the requester] to the [National] Archives repository of records related to the Kennedy assassination was hardly unreasonable[,]" explaining that "the CIA's ultimately incorrect legal view was not unreasonable, at least in the unique context of the statute governing the Kennedy assassination records."  Additionally, the court finds that it was "reasonable for the CIA to rely on the only available court of appeals precedent when the agency withheld operational records[,]" used a Glomar response, and initially withheld documents under Exemption 2.  The D.C. Circuit holds that the district court reasonably balanced the four factors, explaining that although "factors one through three favored [the requester], albeit only slightly," the district court "reasonably concluded that the fourth factor heavily favored the CIA." 

    Writing in dissent, Judge Henderson states that "abuse-of-discretion review, although forgiving, is not an empty formality: here, the district court's discretion was constrained by our earlier opinions in this very case and by our closely related decision . . . ."  She believes that the district court "erred in evaluating each of the four factors individually and abused its discretion in weighing them against one another."   
Attorney Fees
Court of Appeals
Updated January 31, 2019