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Richardson Bay Env’t Prot. Ass’n v. FAA, No. 21-00613, 2023 WL 2562425 (D.D.C. Mar. 17, 2023) (Mehta, J.)


Richardson Bay Env’t Prot. Ass’n v. FAA, No. 21-00613, 2023 WL 2562425 (D.D.C. Mar. 17, 2023) (Mehta, J.)

Re:  Request for records concerning complaints of registration violations by specific company

Disposition:  Granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment in part; denying plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment

  • Exemption 6; Exemption 7(C):  The court relates that “[t]he FAA redacted 97 pages under FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C), including ‘personal emails, office cell phone numbers and complainant names.’”  “Plaintiff does not contest the propriety of Defendant’s redactions under Exemptions 6 and 7(C).”  “Accordingly, summary judgment is granted with respect to Defendant's Exemptions 6 and 7(C) redactions.”
  • Exemption 7(A):  The court relates that “Plaintiff does not contest that the documents were compiled for law enforcement purposes or that an FAA enforcement action qualifies as an ‘enforcement proceeding’ under Exemption 7(A).”  “Plaintiff contends that the 7(A) withholdings are improper because ‘the FAA’s direct investigation of the specific complaints in the [two letters sent to the FAA alleging registration violations]’ ‘had been formally closed by the agency by June 29, 2019.’”  “The court finds that disclosure of the withheld records ‘could reasonably be expected to interfere’ with a future FAA enforcement proceeding based on the withheld complaints.”  “Defendant has stated that the investigations into these complaints are still open and if ‘the FAA ultimately determines a regulatory violation has occurred . . . the FAA could take enforcement [actions] against [the company].’”  “The court finds that these representations sufficiently establish the applicability of Exemption 7(A).”
  • Litigation Considerations, “Reasonably Segregable” Requirements:  The court finds that, “[f]or the reasons stated above, the records at issue fall within Exemption 7(A).”  “Accordingly, the FAA is ‘entitled to a presumption that it complied with the obligation to disclose reasonably segregable material.’”  “Plaintiff provides no evidence to overcome that presumption.”
  • Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search:  First, “[t]he court finds that Defendant’s decision not to search [two locations] was reasonable.”  “As a threshold matter, the records [that would have been located in those locations] are arguably outside the scope of Plaintiff’s FOIA request, which seeks records ‘referencing alleged complaints of registration violations’ by [the company at issue].”  “The . . . records at issue relate to a 2019 Hotline complaint filed [against a different company].”  “Accordingly, the records are likely not responsive to Plaintiff’s request.”  “Even if the records were responsive, the FAA has met its obligation ‘to explain in its affidavit that no other record system was likely to produce responsive documents.’”  “The FAA’s affidavit explains that ‘[one office] conducts internal investigations into FAA personnel and offices in response to allegations of violations of law or internal agency policy’ and ‘[the other office] administers the FAA’s hotline complaint program,’ which intakes complaints and ‘then refers complaints to the office within the FAA most equipped to investigate the complaint.’”  “It is reasonable to determine that an office responsible for internal FAA investigations . . . and an intake office that refers complaints to the relevant investigating offices . . . would not possess records related to investigations of private parties.”

    Next, responding to plaintiff’s request that “the court . . . require Defendant to perform a follow-up search at [a different office] because Plaintiff ‘independently obtained and has identified three records directly from [that office]’ that are responsive to the . . . request,” “[t]he court finds that the three letters independently obtained by Plaintiff from [that office] are not responsive to [plaintiff’s] Request.”

    Finally, regarding defendant’s choice to only search a file cabinet at one location, the court relates that “Plaintiff independently identified 10 documents . . . which, in Plaintiff’s view, are responsive and ‘were never located by the agency’s very limited search of “a physical filing cabinet” undertaken at that location.’”  Regarding some of the documents, the court relates that “Defendant argues that these documents are not responsive because Plaintiff already possesses these documents.”  “Defendant cites no authority for the proposition that an agency is not required to provide documents already in the requestor’s possession.”  However, “the court finds that [some of the other documents cited by plaintiff] are potentially responsive.”  “But the fact that Plaintiff can identify two responsive documents that the FAA did not produce does not, without more, indicate an inadequate search.”  “Still, the court cannot grant summary judgment in favor of Defendant.”  “Defendant has not explained to the court’s satisfaction why all potentially responsive records within [the one location at issue here] would be located within a physical filing cabinet.”  “In this day and age, it is hard to conceive that no potentially responsive records could be found in electronic form.”  “Thus, while the selection of the [location] as a search location was reasonable, absent some explanation for why responsive records would exist only in physical filing cabinet, the court cannot find the search of the [location] adequate.”
Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Exemption 6
Exemption 7(A)
Exemption 7(C)
Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search
Litigation Considerations, “Reasonably Segregable” Requirements
Updated March 31, 2023