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Gahagan v. United States Department of Justice

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

June 24, 2015

MICHAEL GAHAGAN,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, ET AL. SECTION:

ORDER AND REASONS

KURT D. ENGELHARDT, District Judge.

Presently before the Court are two motions for summary judgment (Rec. Docs. 32 and 33) filed by Plaintiff Michael Gahagan. With his motions, Plaintiff seeks relief regarding certain requests for information he submitted, pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, et seq., to Defendants United States Department of Justice ("DOJ"), United States Department of Homeland Security ("DHS"), United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE"), and the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review ("EOIR"). Having considered the parties' submissions[1] and applicable law, IT IS ORDERED, on the showing made, that the motions are GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART as stated herein.

LAW AND ANALYSIS

Plaintiff's instant motions are essentially a follow up to the Court's prior Order and Reasons (Rec. Doc. 31), regarding Plaintiff's first motion for summary judgment, and Defendants' submission in response thereto.[2] The gist of Plaintiff's current motions concern (1) Defendants' obligation to produce a Vaughn Index with their FOIA responses; (2) Defendant ICE's obligation to provide unredacted documents to the Court for in camera inspection; and (3) the adequacy of Defendants' searches for responsive documents. Contending Plaintiff's motions lack merit, Defendants ICE and EOIR ("Defendants") point to and rely upon their submissions made to both the Court and Plaintiff, their submission of unredacted documents to the Court for in camera review, and correspondence to and from Plaintiff regarding a second set of redacted documents that were provided to Plaintiff following Defendant ICE's second search.[3] The submissions that Defendants have made to both the Court and Plaintiff, since the issuance of the Court's prior Order and Reasons are: (1) the sworn declaration of Fernando Pineiro, on behalf of ICE, [4] (2) the second sworn declaration of Crystal Souza, on behalf of EOIR, [5] and (3) a second set of redacted documents from ICE's files.[6]

I. Summary Judgment Standard

Pursuant to Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment shall be granted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). FOIA places the burden of proof on the government agency to sustain its action; namely, to demonstrate the adequacy of its search and to justify any nondisclosures. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); United States Dept. of Justice v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 755 (1989). The agency can meet its burden by demonstrating a "good faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records, using methods which can be reasonably expected to produce the information requested, " and by providing clear, specific, and reasonably detailed affidavits identifying each redacted or nondisclosed document and explaining why it falls under a claimed exemption. Batton v. Evers, 598 F.3d 169, 177 (5th Cir. 2010); Summers v. Dep't of Justice, 140 F.3d 1077, 1080 (D.C. Cir. 1998).

II. Plaintiff's Contentions

A. Vaughn Index Requirement

Plaintiff first argues that Defendant failed to submit a "legally mandated" Vaughn Index justifying its withholdings and redactions. In Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820, 827 (D.C. Cir. 1973), the D.C. Circuit concluded that having a detailed explanation from the FOIA respondent of each redaction made, including identification of the applicable FOIA exemption(s), would facilitate a court's review of the sufficiency of the production made in response to a plaintiff's FOIA request. The Vaughn Court suggested organizing these documents using an indexing system that is now often referred to as a " Vaughn Index." Id. There is no set formula, or particular required format, for a Vaughn Index; rather, the appropriate organization and format of each index will depend on the nature of the documents and exemptions at issue. Jones v. FBI, 41 F.3d 238, 242 (6th Cir. 1998). Further, the agency need not produce a separate document specifically labeled " Vaughn Index, " so long as it otherwise provides the Court with a clear explanation for each redaction and nondisclosure in some format. See, e.g., Miscavige v. IRS, 2 F.3d 366, 368 (11th Cir. 1993). In short, the Court's focus is on the "substance, rather than the form, of the information supplied by the government to justify its withholding of requested information." Vaughn v. United States, 936 F.2d 862, 867 (6th Cir. 1991).

Here, Defendant ICE did not provide the Court or Plaintiff with a separate document labeled " Vaughn Index." Rather, the redacted documents produced by ICE were accompanied by a sworn declaration from Fernando Pineiro, on behalf of ICE, [7] that includes a section addressing each FOIA exemption that ICE contends justifies its redactions.[8] More specifically, that section references each redacted document by Bates page number and identifies the corresponding exemption(s) applied to each page's redactions. It also includes an explanation for each exemption, describes the contents of the redacted document, and sets forth the titles of the employees who participated in the preparation of the written communication. In addition, the redacted documents accompanying the Pineiro declaration also have the citation of the asserted FOIA exemption placed directly over the redacted ("covered") text.[9]

The Court is persuaded that the additional information and documents provided[10] in response to the Court's previous Order and Reasons satisfy ICE's obligation relative to a Vaughn Index. The Court is able to derive from the Pineiro declaration an explanation as to why ICE contends that each redacted portion is exempt from disclosure. Additionally, any allegedly inadequate explanations provided by ICE are sufficiently supplemented by the unredacted documents supplied to the Court for in camera inspection. See Lion Raisins, Inc. v. USDA, 354 F.3d 1072, 1082 (9th Cir. 2004); see also Simon v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 980 F.2d 782, 784 (D.C. Cir. 1992). Therefore, to the extent Plaintiff's motion requests additional explanation from ICE in the form of a Vaughn Index, IT IS ORDERED that the motion is DENIED.[11]

B. In camera Document Inspection

Plaintiff's second contention is that the Court should order ICE to produce withheld agency records for in camera inspection. ICE did so on June 17, 2014. Accordingly, the Court finds that submission ...


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