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PLN Awarded Summary Judgment In FOIA Case Again

On March 26, 2009, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton entered summary judgment for PLN in an ongoing battle between Prison Legal News and the BOP over the release of certain records.

In 2003, PLN submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the BOP for “all documents showing all money paid by the Bureau . . . for lawsuits and claims against it . . . between January 1, 1996 . . . and . . . July 31, 2003.” This covered a wide range of documents including copies of verdicts, settlements, claims, and complaints filed in each case. In addition, PLN requested a fee waiver for its request.

The BOP denied PLN’s request for a fee waiver. After the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy affirmed the BOP’s decision, PLN brought suit against the BOP. On June 26, 2006, Judge Walton granted summary judgment for PLN, ordering the BOP to provide PLN with the requested records without costs. See: Prison Legal News v. Lappin, 436 F.Supp.2d 17 (D.D.C. 2006).

Thereafter, the BOP provided PLN over 10,000 pages of records related to its request. Many of the documents that were produced, though, were heavily redacted, rendering most of the disclosures useless. In addition, the BOP failed to turn over numerous complaints, judgments, and settlements, providing copies of docket sheets instead.

PLN filed a second motion for summary judgment challenging the adequacy of the BOP’s search for records along with its numerous redactions. The BOP opposed PLN’s motion, relying primarily upon an affidavit from Wilson J. Moorer, a ?paralegal within the BOP’s Washington FOIA office. The Moorer affidavit claimed that the BOP had conducted an adequate search and that all of the redactions were proper. ?After considering the parties cross-filings, Judge Walton granted PLN’s motion. While the BOP had attempted to defend the adequacy of its search based on the Moorer affidavit, the court agreed with PLN that the affidavit submitted by the BOP was inadequate. The Moorer affidavit “does not outline the search methods undertaken by the Bureau to respond to the plaintiff’s FOIA request, who would have conducted the searches, and, as the plaintiff correctly points out, nowhere does the affiant indicate how he is personally aware of the search procedures or that he knows they were followed by each of the Bureau’s entities tasked with responding to this request,” the court wrote. “All of these deficiencies undermine the sufficiency of the affidavit.”

Similarly, Judge Walton concluded that the BOP’s redactions pursuant to various FOIA exemptions could not be upheld. “Because the Bureau bears the burden of demonstrating that its utilization of the FOIA exemptions was proper, it must provide to the Court an affidavit or other form of submission that” is based on personal knowledge, Judge Walton wrote. “That has not been accomplished here.”

Because the BOP’s affidavit was deemed insufficient to support the adequacy of its search and numerous redactions, the court gave the BOP two options: (1) conduct a new search for the records sought by PLN or (2) provide the court with a new affidavit or affidavits evidencing, based on personal knowledge, that the searches “actually conducted were reasonably designed to locate documents responsive to” PLN’s request, and that the redactions were proper under FOIA. See: Prison Legal News v. Lappin, USDC D DC, Case No. 1:05-CV-01812-RBW (D.D.C. 2009). The BOP has since sought reconsideration of the Judge Walton’s order. PLN has been well and diligently represented through the course of this litigation by Ed Elder. Shortly after the court’s decision in the latest round of litigation Ed was struck by a hit and run driver and seriously injured. However, he is expected to make a full recovery.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Lappin