Nat'l Pub. Radio, Inc. v. FEMA, No. 17-91, 2017 WL 5633090 (D.D.C. Nov. 21, 2017) (Howell, C. J.)
Re: Request for records concerning FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program ("HMGP")
Disposition: Denying defendant's motion for summary judgment; granting plaintiff's motion for summary judgment
Exemption 6: The court holds that, "given the limited privacy interests and weighty public interests at stake in disclosure of the requested records, as well as Exemption 6's pro-disclosure bent, the balance of privacy and disclosure here weighs plainly in disclosure's favor." At issue is the withholding of "the names of HMGP sellers, as well as addresses and [Geographic Information System ("GIS")] coordinates of properties FEMA acquired through the program." First, the court finds that "defendants have met their 'not very demanding' burden of showing that production of the records at issue 'would constitute a "more than minimal invasion of [HMGP sellers'] personal privacy,"' even if any 'privacy interest that may exist' is not 'particularly strong.'" The court explains that "[d]isclosure of a former address thus implicates a small, though not de minimis, privacy interest." And, "[a]s with disclosure of former addresses, disclosure of one's past receipt of a one-time payment for a past sale of real property implicates a small, albeit not de minimis, privacy interest." Additionally, "HMGP sellers thus have a greater than de minimis privacy interest in avoidance of neighbors' jealousy." However, the court also finds that "[t]o allow an agency to invoke Exemption 6 merely because the media might contact an individual in connection with a produced record would bring a vast number of FOIA requests within Exemption 6's auspices, undermining FOIA's purpose of allowing 'citizens to know what their Government is up to.'" Second, the court finds that "[d]isclosure of the records at issue would serve the public interest." "Production of the records sought would reveal at least three pieces of information regarding the defendants' management of the HMGP currently unknown to the public – the specific locations of properties purchased, the properties' individual purchase prices, and the identities of HMGP sellers." "This information, valuable in itself to enhance 'public understanding of the operations or activities of the government,' . . . also is necessary to enable 'meaningful[ ] evaluat[ion] [of] whether the [HMGP] is being operated consistent with the applicable legal constraints, whether the [p]rogram funds are being spent wisely, and whether the [p]rogram is achieving its stated purpose of disaster mitigation.'" Finally, the court finds that "the 'undeniable and powerful,' . . . public interest in shedding light on the defendants' administration of the HMGP outweighs HMGP sellers' weak privacy interests in nondisclosure of their names and of their former properties' addresses and GIS coordinates." "[D]isclosure of HMGP sellers' names would not only enable identification of fraud against the government – itself an important public interest – but would also assist the public in determining whether government actors have themselves committed fraud, coerced private citizens into selling their property, or paid sellers the full amounts they were due under the HMGP's terms." "Though HMGP sellers have a meaningful privacy interest in nondisclosure of their names, the public interest in disclosure . . . outweighs those privacy interests."