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The Habeas Citebook: Prosecutorial Misconduct

HRDC v. UDVA, DC, Complaint, Public Records, 2020

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Case 1:20-cv-02719-RC Document 1 Filed 09/23/20 Page 1 of 6

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENSE CENTER,
1028 N. Federal Highway
Lake Worth Beach, FL 22460

Civil Action No.

Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS
AFFAIRS,
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Defendant.

COMPLAINT

1. This lawsuit is an action under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. §552, et
seq., seeking production of records responsive to requests submitted by the Human
Rights Defense Center to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

Jurisdiction and Venue
2. This Court has both subject matter jurisdiction over this action and personal
jurisdiction over the defendants under 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B) and 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331,
2201(a), and 2202.
3. Venue is appropriate in this Court under 5 U.S.C. §(a)(4)(B) and 28 U.S.C. §1391.

Case 1:20-cv-02719-RC Document 1 Filed 09/23/20 Page 2 of 6

Parties
4. Plaintiff Human Rights Defense Center is a nonprofit charitable organization
incorporated in the state of Washington, with a principal office in Lake Worth Beach,
Florida.
5. Defendant United States Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) is an agency under
5 U.S.C. § 552(f)(1) and 5 U.S.C. § 701.

Facts
Human Rights Defense Center’s Background and Mission
6. The Human Rights Defense Center (previously named Prison Legal News) has spent
the last thirty years dedicated to public education, prisoner education, advocacy, and
outreach to support the rights of prisoners and to further basic human rights.
7. To accomplish its mission, the Human Rights Defense Center (“HRDC”) gathers
information from governmental entities around the country and publishes the
information in its journals and on its websites.
8. HRDC publishes and distributes books, magazines, and other information containing
news and analysis about prisons, jails, and other detention facilities, prisoners’ rights,
court rulings, management of prison facilities, prison conditions, and other matters
about the rights and interests of incarcerated individuals.
9 . HRDC publishes two magazines: Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News.
10. Prison Legal News (“PLN”) is a legal journal that reports news and litigation about
carceral facilities. PLN has published monthly since 1990 and has around 9,000

Case 1:20-cv-02719-RC Document 1 Filed 09/23/20 Page 3 of 6

subscribers in all 50 states. Based on reader survey results, the estimated actual
readership is about ten times that number. PLN also maintains a website that receives
around 100,000 visitors per month based on site analytics.
11. Criminal Legal News (“CLN”) is a legal journal launched in 2017. CLN reports on
criminal law decisions from the state and federal systems, focusing on legal
developments affecting the fact and duration of confinement. CLN also covers civil
rights litigation against police, prosecutors, and court systems.
12. Through its publishing arm, HRDC also publishes books about the criminal justice
system and legal issues affected prisoners.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs

13. The VA comprises the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits
Administration, and the National Cemetery Administration. The VA operates a
Police Service, as part of its Office of Operations, Security, and Preparedness, to
provide to protect the Veterans, staff, and visitors who use any of its 170 Medical
Centers.

Request at Issue

14. On July 20, 2019, HRDC emailed the VA, at vacofoiaservice@va.gov, a FOIA request
for records of litigation against the VA Police Services.
15. The FOIA request sought:

Case 1:20-cv-02719-RC Document 1 Filed 09/23/20 Page 4 of 6

HRDC requests certain records regarding litigation against Department of Veterans
Affairs Police and its employees or agents created from January 1, 2010 until the
present. In cases except those involving traffic-related claims, HRDC limits its
request to claims and cases in which the government paid $1,000 or more. These
payments include but are not limited to settlements, damages, attorney fee awards,
and sanctions, irrespective of the identity of the plaintiff or claimant. In traffic-related
claims, HRDC limits its request to those in which the government paid greater than
$30,000.
For each case or claim described above, HRDC requests the following records,
provided in electronic native format where possible, and otherwise in electronic
format:
•

The Complaint or Claim Form and any amended versions;

•

The Verdict Form, Final Judgment, Settlement Agreement, Consent Decree,
or other paper that resolved the case.

•

A record that shows the amount of money involved in the resolution and to
whom it was paid.

16. As a member of the media, HRDC also sought a fee waiver.
17. The VA did not respond.
18. On October 21, 2019, HRDC sent an email request to vacofoiaservice@va.gov for the
status of the FOIA request.
19. The VA did not respond.
20. On March 13, 2020, HRDC followed up by email to OSVAFOIA@va.gov, requesting
an update on the status of the request.
21. On March 18, 2020, Mr. Richard Ha, an OSVA FOIA / Privacy Officer, emailed the
VACO FOIA Service Inbox, copying HRDC, and asked that office to respond to the
FOIA request.

Case 1:20-cv-02719-RC Document 1 Filed 09/23/20 Page 5 of 6

22. On March 26, 2020, Ms. Doloras Johnson, the Director the VACO FOIA Service
sent a letter to HRDC acknowledging receipt of the original FOIA request. The letter
noted that the request had been assigned tracking number 20-04094-F. It also noted
that the request was forwarded to the VA’s Office of General Counsel, and that the
Office of General Counsel would reply directly.
23. On September 3, 2020, HRDC followed up by phone with the contact the VA had
designated in the Office of General Counsel, Ms. Renee Baxter. Ms. Baxter returned
the call, shared that she was no longer assigned to FOIA matters, and would forward
the message asking for an update on the status of the FOIA request to the correct
parties. HRDC heard nothing further.
24. On September 8, 2020, HRDC again asked about the status of the request, by leaving
a voice mail at Ms. Baxter’s number and emailing ogcfoiarequests@va.gov.
25. The VA did not respond.
26. HRDC never received a response to its FOIA request to the VA.
HRDC’s Claim for Relief

27. HRDC incorporates paragraphs 1 – 26 by reference.
28. The VA wrongly withheld documents responsive to HRDC’s properly submitted
FOIA request.
29. HRDC has a statutory right to the records it seeks, and there is no basis for the VA to
withhold them.

Case 1:20-cv-02719-RC Document 1 Filed 09/23/20 Page 6 of 6

30. As a result, by failing to release the records specifically requested by HRDC, the VA
has violated FOIA.
Requested Relief

HRDC therefore respectfully requests that this Court:

1. Declare that the records sought by HRDC are subject to FOIA,
2. Order the VA to disclose the requested records,
3. Award costs and attorneys’ fees under 5 U.S.C. § 552 (a)(4)(E), and
4. Grant any other relief that the Court considers just and proper.

Respectfully submitted,

/s/ Deborah M. Golden
Deborah M. Golden, D.C. Bar #470578
The Law Office of Deborah M. Golden
1415 H St. NE
Washington, D.C. 20002
Telephone: (202) 630-0332
deb.golden@gmail.com
Counsel for Plaintiff

Dated: September 23, 2020
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