Vietnam Veterans of Am. Conn. Greater Hartford Chapter 120 v. DHS, No. 10-1972, 2014 WL 1284970 (D. Conn. Mar. 31, 2014) (Thompson, J.)
Re: Records concerning use of personality disorder discharges when separating service members from armed forces
Disposition: Granting in part and denying in part defendant's motion for summary judgment
- Procedural Requirements, Searching for Responsive Records: First, the court addresses plaintiffs' argument that "the searches conducted by the DoD, its components, and the Veterans Health Administration are facially inadequate because the agencies did not construe the plaintiffs' requests to include individual service member files." The court agrees with plaintiffs and finds that plaintiffs' request "makes it clear that the plaintiffs are seeking all records related to the use of personality disorder and adjustment disorder discharges to separate service members." However, the court finds that "'an agency need not respond to a request that is so broad as to impose an unreasonable burden upon the agency, such as one which requires the agency to locate, review, redact, and arrange for inspection a vast quantity of material.'" While plaintiffs, during the course of the litigation “indicated their willingness to narrow their request to a representative sample[,]” the court declines to consider that proposal. "Because the court can only consider the request actually before it—here, the request for all of the individual service members' separation packets—the court concludes that the plaintiffs' original request would have imposed an unreasonable burden on the defendants, and therefore they are not required to respond." The court explains that "defendants argue, and the court agrees, that the court should not consider whether the plaintiffs' proposed narrowed search would be unduly burdensome." The court makes a parallel ruling with respect to plaintiff's request for "[Veterans Administration] files."
- Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search: Second, the court addresses the searches themselves, first holding that the declarations submitted by certain components of DoD "do not meet their burden of showing beyond material doubt that the search conducted . . . was adequate." The court holds that various components' declarations "are insufficient" because they "do not describe [all of defendants] filing system[s]," "do not state why [certain] files [searched] were selected to be searched at the exclusion of others," "do not state which search terms ultimately were used," and "do not adequately describe [certain] search[es] to show that [they were] reasonably calculated to find all responsive documents." The court does find that declarations submitted on behalf some of defendant's offices "sufficiently describe the search that was conducted by [those offices] and show beyond material doubt that the search was reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents." Additionally, the court notes that the declaration of one component "describes in detail why [that one] component and [its] offices were selected to conduct the searches and averred that based on his experience, no other office was likely to maintain responsive records." The court also notes that this component "describes the kinds of information each office maintains and how such information is stored."
- Litigation Considerations, Mootness and Other Grounds for Dismissal: The court finds that "[b]ecause the court has determined that the plaintiffs' requests for the individual service member files are unduly burdensome and the defendants were not required to respond, the issue of whether search and duplication fees may be assessed is moot."
- Litigation Considerations, Vaughn Index / Declaration: The court holds that defendant's "Vaughn index is sufficient." The court finds that "defendants' Vaughn index identifies each document where information was redacted, the type of document it is, the claimed exemption and the basis for redacting the information pursuant to that exemption."
- Exemption 6: The court holds that defendant's "motion for summary judgment is being granted as to the propriety of the redactions." First, the court states that "in light of the fact that rank, dates of service and place of last assignment could be used by knowledgeable individuals to link the service member to highly sensitive material and it is not apparent how this information would shed light on the defendants' use of personality and adjustment disorder discharges, the court finds that redaction was appropriate." Second, "the court finds that the low-level DoD officials have more than a de minimis privacy interest in their names and identifying information because their employment with the DoD could subject them to harassment or attack." Additionally, the court holds that "[t]he public interest in this case is negligible or nonexistent."