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Gahagan v. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

June 11, 2015

MICHAEL W. GAHAGAN
v.
UNITED STATES CITIZENSHIP AND IMMIGRATION SERVICES SECTION

ORDER AND REASONS

IVAN L.R. LEMELLE, District Judge.

I. NATURE OF THE MOTION AND RELIEF SOUGHT

Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff, Michael Gahagan.[1] Plaintiff seeks summary judgment relative to certain requests for information he submitted, pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, et seq., to Defendant, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS"). The USCIS has filed an opposition.[2] Accordingly, and for the reasons enumerated below, IT IS ORDERED that the Motion for Summary Judgment (Rec. Doc. 7) is DENIED.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In his complaint, Plaintiff Michael W. Gahagan, an immigration attorney, alleges that he requested a copy of agency records from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("USICE") New Orleans, Louisiana Office of the Chief Counsel pursuant to The Mandatory Access Law, 8 U.S.C. § 1229(a)(c)(2)(B), INA § 240(c)(2)(B) so that he could effectively represent his client, Lloyd Patterson in removal proceedings before the New Orleans, Louisiana Immigration Court.[3]

Plaintiff claims that on November 25, 2014, he properly filed a FOIA request for a copy of Patterson's Form I-485 Receipt Notice from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS").[4] The request was received by the National Records Center ("NRC"), a component within USCIS. The NRC responded with a letter, dated December 16, 2015, informing Plaintiff that 429 pages were being released in their entirety, 36 pages were being released in part, 11 pages were being withheld in full, and 33 pages were being referred to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") for processing and direct release.[5] On January 16, 2015, Plaintiff filed an appeal to the government's disclosure of the information. On February 10, 2015, the USCIS produced ten (10) partially withheld pages of responsive records; however, Plaintiff contends it did not provide the requested Form I-485.[6]

Gahagan claims that Defendant's delay has "irreparably harmed" him, since he will be unable to prepare adequately to defend Mr. Patterson in his removal proceedings."[7] Gahagan asserts that he has exhausted his administrative remedies in connection with his FOIA requests. On March 11, 2015, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit seeking attorney's fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act and FOIA, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief finding that defendants violated FOIA by failing to respond to his FOIA request, and order defendant to conduct a reasonable and adequate search for the requested information, and enjoin defendant from continuing to withhold the documents.[8]

In response, Defendant argues that the agency: (1) conducted a legally adequate search; (2) the agency released the I-485 at issue on April 24, 2015, after the filing of the instant motion; and therefore, (3) the instant motion should be dismissed as moot.[9]

III. LAW AND ANALYSIS

a. Summary Judgment & the Freedom of Information Act

Summary judgment is appropriate only if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James, 276 F.3d 754, 749 (5th Cir. 2002).

In the FOIA context, the traditional standard is modified because "the threshold question in any FOIA suit is whether the requester can even see the documents the character of which determines whether they can be released." Cooper Cameron Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, OSHA, 280 F.3d 539, 543 (5th Cir. 2002). Accordingly, the FOIA statute provides that, when the Government withholds information from disclosure, the agency has the burden to prove de novo that the information is exempt from disclosure. § 522(a)(4)(B).

In applying this standard, the Court is mindful of the purpose behind the FOIA. The FOIA was enacted to "pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny." Dep't of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976)(quotation marks and citation omitted). The exemptions to disclosure are explicitly limited by statute and should be construed narrowly. Batton v. Evers, 598 F.3d 169, 175 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Department of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361, (1976)); see also Mavadia v. Caplinger, Civil Action No. 95-3542, 1996 WL 592742, at *1 (E.D. La. Oct. 11, 1996)(Vance, J.)(FOIA "created a basic policy of full agency disclosure and a broad right of access to official information, reflecting citizens' right to know what their government is up to.")(quoting United States Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press, 489 U.S. 749, 772-73 (1989)(internal quotations omitted)).

FOIA provides that "each agency, upon any request for records which (i) reasonably describes such records and (ii) is made in accordance with published rules..., shall make the records ...


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