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Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. United States Department of Justice

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

April 1, 2014


Argued January 16, 2014

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (No. 1:11-cv-00592).

David L. Sobel argued the cause for the appellant. Melanie T. Sloan and Anne L. Weismann were on brief.

Steve Frank, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for the appellee. Stuart F. Delery, Assistant Attorney General, Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. Attorney, and Leonard Schaitman, Attorney, were on brief.

Before: HENDERSON, Circuit Judge, and EDWARDS and SENTELLE, Senior Circuit Judges.


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Karen LeCraft Henderson, Circuit Judge.

In 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) opened a wide-ranging public corruption investigation into the activities of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The investigation yielded 21 guilty pleas or convictions by jury. Two of those convicted, Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon, once served as senior aides to Tom DeLay--the former Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives. During the multi-year investigation, the FBI never acknowledged whether DeLay himself was a subject of inquiry. In August 2010, however, DeLay announced that the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) had informed him it had decided not to bring criminal charges against him related to the Abramoff scandal.

Shortly after DeLay's announcement, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking various types of documents related to the FBI's investigation of DeLay. After the FBI declined to produce the documents, CREW filed suit against the DOJ (the agency encompassing the FBI). The district court granted summary judgment to the DOJ, concluding that the requested documents were categorically exempt from disclosure under Exemptions 7(A) and 7(C) and that, in the alternative, portions of the requested documents were also exempt under Exemptions 3, 7(D) and 7(E). Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Wash. v. Dep't of Justice, 870 F.Supp.2d 70 (D.D.C. 2012). We now reverse and remand. The DOJ has not met its burden of justifying categorical withholding under Exemption 7(A) or 7(C) and has not adequately explained the basis for withholding portions of the requested documents under Exemptions 3, 7(D) and 7(E).


A. Legal Framework

FOIA provides that every government 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 promptly available to any person." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A). Certain information is exempt from disclosure. Of primary relevance here, " records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes" are exempt,

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but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information (A) could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings, . . . [or] © could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy . . . .

Id. § 552(b)(7).

FOIA " was enacted to facilitate public access to Government documents" and " was designed to 'pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny.'" Dep't of State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164, 173, 112 S.Ct. 541, 116 L.Ed.2d 526 (1991) (quoting Dep't of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361, 96 S.Ct. 1592, 48 L.Ed.2d 11 (1976)). Because of FOIA's " goal of broad disclosure," the Supreme Court has " insisted that the exemptions be 'given a narrow compass.'" Milner v. Dep't of Navy, 131 S.Ct. 1259, 1265, 179 L.Ed.2d 268 (2011) (quoting Dep't of Justice v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 151, 109 S.Ct. 2841, 106 L.Ed.2d 112 (1989)); accord FBI v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615, 630, 102 S.Ct. 2054, 72 L.Ed.2d 376 (1982) (" FOIA exemptions are to be narrowly construed." ). FOIA's " limited exemptions do not obscure the basic policy that disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of the Act." Dep't of Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Ass'n, 532 U.S. 1, 8, 121 S.Ct. 1060, 149 L.Ed.2d 87 (2001) (quoting Rose, 425 U.S. at 361).

The agency bears the burden of establishing that a claimed exemption applies. Dep't of Justice v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 755, 109 S.Ct. 1468, 103 L.Ed.2d 774 (1989); Elec. Frontier Found. v. Dep't of Justice, 739 F.3d 1, 7 (D.C. Cir. 2014); see 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). The agency may carry that burden by submitting affidavits that " describe the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstrate that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record nor by evidence of agency bad faith." Larson v. Dep't of State, 565 F.3d 857, 862, 385 U.S.App. D.C. 394 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (quoting Miller v. Casey, 730 F.2d 773, 776, 235 U.S.App. D.C. 11 (D.C. Cir. 1984)). Agency affidavits sometimes take the form of a " Vaughn index," see Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820, 157 U.S.App. D.C. 340 (D.C. Cir. 1973), but there is " no fixed rule" establishing what such an affidavit must look like, ACLU v. CIA, 710 F.3d 422, 432, 404 U.S.App. D.C. 235 (D.C. Cir. 2013). " [I]t is the function, not the form, of the index that is important." Keys v. Dep't of Justice, 830 F.2d 337, 349, 265 U.S.App. D.C. 189 (D.C. Cir. 1987); see generally Judicial Watch, Inc. v. FDA, 449 F.3d 141, 145-46 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (explaining functions of Vaughn index).

At times, the FOIA litigation process threatens to reveal " the very information the agency hopes to protect" and therefore it may be necessary for the agency affidavit to contain only " brief or categorical descriptions" of the withheld information. ACLU, 710 F.3d at 432; see also Judicial Watch, 449 F.3d at 146. In such circumstances, " the government need not justify its withholdings document-by-document; it may instead do so category-of-document by category-of-document, so long as its definitions of relevant categories are sufficiently distinct to allow a court to determine whether the specific claimed exemptions are properly applied." Gallant v. NLRB, 26 F.3d 168, 173, 307 U.S.App. D.C. 27 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (quotation marks and ellipsis omitted); accord Crooker v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, 789 F.2d 64, 67, 252 U.S.App. D.C. 232 (D.C. Cir. 1986). Categorical treatment, however, may be used " [o]nly when the range of circumstances included in the category 'characteristically support[s] an inference' that the statutory requirements

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for exemption are satisfied." Nation Magazine v. U.S. Customs Serv., 71 F.3d 885, 893, 315 U.S.App. D.C. 177 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (quoting Dep't of Justice v. Landano, 508 U.S. 165, 177, 113 S.Ct. 2014, 124 L.Ed.2d 84 (1993)); accord Reporters Comm., 489 U.S. at 776 (" [C]ategorical decisions may be appropriate and individual circumstances disregarded when a case fits into a genus in which the balance characteristically tips in one direction." ); Roth v. Dep't of Justice, 642 F.3d 1161, 1183-84, 395 U.S.App. D.C. 340 (D.C. Cir. 2011).

B. Factual and Procedural Background

On October 19, 2010, after DeLay had announced that he was not going to be criminally charged as a result of the Abramoff investigation, CREW wrote to the FBI requesting

any witness statements, investigation reports, prosecution memoranda, and [FBI] 302 reports related to the FBI's and DOJ's investigation of [DeLay]. This includes, but is not limited to, the FBI's and DOJ's investigation of relationships between Mr. DeLay and Christine DeLay, Dani DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Edwin Buckham, Tony Rudy, Michael Scanlon, Susan Hirshmann, the Alexander Strategy Group, the National Center for Public Policy Research, eLottery, Inc., the U.S. Family Network, Americans for a Republican Majority PAC (" ARMPAC" ), Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (" TRMPAC" ), and/or the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands.

Joint Appendix (JA) 51. Three days later, the FBI responded, stating that, because the requested records involved third parties, they were generally exempt from disclosure and could not be released absent express authorization from each third party, proof of the third party's death or a " clear demonstration that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the personal privacy interest and that significant public benefit would result from the disclosure of the requested records." JA 107. The FBI's response also included the disclaimer--in FOIA terms, a " Glomar response," see Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 211 U.S.App. D.C. 135 (D.C. Cir. 1981); Phillippi v. CIA, 655 F.2d 1325, 211 U.S.App. D.C. 95 (D.C. Cir. 1981)--that the response " should not be considered an indication of ...

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