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Pinson v. DOJ, No. 12-1872, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46176 (D.D.C. Mar. 29, 2017) (Contreras, J.)


Pinson v. DOJ, No. 12-1872, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46176 (D.D.C. Mar. 29, 2017) (Contreras, J.)

Re: Plaintiff's thirty-five FOIA requests


Disposition: Granting in part and denying in part defendant's second motion for summary judgment

  • Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search: "Although the Court finds that [plaintiff's] arguments relating to desired documents and redactions are inapplicable and that many of the searches were acceptable, it cannot say that two of her requests are too vague to allow for a search, and lacks sufficient information about another to grant summary judgment." For most of the requests, the court finds that "DOJ's declaration describes each request in detail, explains to whom the request was sent, and specifies the databases searched." The court also finds that "[t]he fact that a particular document was not produced is irrelevant . . . particularly in the absence of any evidence suggesting that the search itself was inadequate or that bad faith was afoot."

    However, regarding one request, the court finds that "the FBI has not fulfilled its burden of showing that it conducted a search reasonably calculated to locate responsive documents." "Although directing a requester to a public set of documents that would otherwise be responsive to the request is acceptable under FOIA, . . . the FBI has done nothing more than assert, in conclusory terms, that the documents available on its vault are responsive." The court points to the FBI's handling of a similar request as an example of how to proceed when pointing the requester to publically available documents and finds that, "[u]nlike with [the previously discussed] request . . ., it is irrelevant that more documents may exist." The court notes that "[plaintiff] requested a maximum of 100 pages of responsive materials." "If [plaintiff] wanted more pages than her initial request or pages on a different subject matter, she should have submitted a separate request."

  • Procedural Requirements, Consultations and Referrals: The court finds that "a lack of details surrounding an FBI 'referral' to the BOP leaves the Court unable to determine whether the DOJ's search was adequate." "The DOJ has, quite simply, not provided the Court with any details about the search process, documents released, or exemptions claimed with respect to [plaintiff's] assault request." "[Defendant's] Declaration states only that the matter was referred to the BOP, and that the BOP processed the request." "Without details of the search and the BOP's claimed exemptions, the Court cannot determine whether the 'agency who received the FOIA request' met its obligations."

  • Procedural Requirements, Searching for Responsive Records: "The Court agrees with the DOJ that the first request was too vague for the FBI to process." The court relates that "[t]he request at issue was for all documents 'concerning the activities of the California Mexican Mafia and Aryan brotherhood gangs within federal prisons generated since 2007[.]'" "On its face, because of the breadth and sweeping nature of the request, this request is too vague to expect an FBI employee familiar with the subject area to conduct a search." The court also notes that "[plaintiff] did not clarify her request when the FBI asked for her to do so." However, the court finds that "[plaintiff's] second request, which is for 'all information, specifically Form-302[s], produced during investigation of inmate homicides at the U.S. Penitentiary in Victorville, California between 2004 and 2012,' . . . seems reasonably narrow so as to allow a professional employee familiar with FBI investigations into homicides at Penitentiary in Victorsville to formulate a search." The court finds that "[the FBI] never explains why it finds the request to be vague, or what factors make this seemingly-straightforward request overbroad." "The same reasoning applies to [plaintiff's] third request, which was for 'all letters written by [the FBI] in California, Colorado to the Wardens of Federal Correctional Complex or institutions in Florence, CO or/and Victorville, CA, [and/or Coleman] for any reason from 2008 to the present.'"

    Separately, the court finds that "[g]iven the DOJ's explanation and the good faith presumption that the Court gives agency affiants, the DOJ has adequately searched for and produced materials in response to this request." "The FBI provided [plaintiff] with a complete list of all FBI field offices." "Beyond that, the Court has no reason to question the FBI's assertion that it does not maintain a directory of all its 'departments.'"

  • Exemption 3: The court holds that "[t]he materials withheld under Exemption 3 relate to specific grand jury investigations." "[T]he withheld information concerned the identities of 'recipients of federal grand jury subpoenas; information that identifies specific records subpoenaed by a federal grand jury; and copies of specific records provided to a federal grand jury in response to federal grand jury subpoenas.'" "All of these categories of materials embody information that could elucidate the 'strategy or direction of the investigation' of the grand jury, and is thus exempt from release."

  • Exemption 7, Threshold: The court holds that "the FBI adequately establishes – as [plaintiff] has apparently conceded, . . . – that the responsive records at issue here were compiled for law enforcement purposes within the scope of Exemption 7." The court explains that "[t]he FBI is the primary investigative agency of the federal government." "[Plaintiff's] requests for materials related to 'two separate homicide investigations that occurred in two Federal Prisons, and the FBI's investigation of the Aryan Brotherhood,' . . . clearly show that the sought after materials were created and compiled for law enforcement purposes."

  • Exemption 7(C): "In light of the substantial privacy interests of these different categories of individuals, the Court determines that the FBI properly withheld identifying information under Exemption 7(C)." The court relates that "the FBI . . . invoked Exemption 7(C) to prevent the disclosure of 'names and/or identifying information' of law enforcement personnel, their support personnel, and third parties who interacted with law enforcement personnel." The court finds that "[plaintiff] does not contest the withholding of records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes under Exemption 7, and thus obviously does not show that the public's interest outweighs these privacy interests, let alone that the agency in any way acted illegally."

  • Exemption 7(D): First, regarding defendant's express confidentiality arguments, the court holds that "Exemption 7(D) plainly applies to the information withheld by the FBI because it was obtained during the course of investigations with 'express grants of confidentiality.'" "The same is true for the permanent source symbols assigned to informants operating under express grants of confidentiality." "[Plaintiff] does not contest the applicability of this exception, and does not call into question the good faith nature of the DOJ affiant's credibility." Second, regarding defendant's implied confidentiality arguments, the court holds that "[t]he identities of FBI informants investigating top-level Aryan Brotherhood gang members fit squarely within the reasoning in Landano." "The government seeks to withhold the identities of informants who provided information to the FBI on a continual basis." "Moreover, the violent gang activities of the Aryan Brotherhood support the inference that those informants would not have provided the FBI with information 'except on the condition of confidentiality.'"

  • Exemption 7(A): Regarding one request, the court finds that "the FBI has failed to justify the withholdings under Exemption 7(A)." "It is unclear which supporting documents in the record the FBI relies upon for justifying withholdings under Exemption 7(A)." "Nor is it clear, based on the Court's reading of the record, that the redactions under Exemption 7(A) are redundant of other exemptions."

  • Litigation Considerations, "Reasonably Segregable" Requirements: The court finds that "DOJ provided [plaintiff] with a 'Summary of Justification Categories' index describing each document withheld in part or in full, as well as the exemption under which it was withheld." "The table details, with specificity, the nature of the withholdings and the legal justifications." "The declaration of [defendant] is therefore sufficient to fulfill the agency's obligation to show with 'reasonable specificity' why a document cannot be further segregated." The court also finds that "[t]he conclusory statement that a document is heavily redacted does not suffice to refute an agency's detailed showing that all reasonably segregable material has been released."

Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Exemption 3
Exemption 7
Exemption 7(A)
Exemption 7(C)
Exemption 7(D)
Exemption 7, Threshold
Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search
Litigation Considerations, “Reasonably Segregable” Requirements
Procedural Requirements, Consultations and Referrals
Procedural Requirements, Searching for Responsive Records
Updated December 15, 2021