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Court Rebuffs BOP for Third Time in PLN Records Suit

The score is now PLN - 3, BOP - 0 in a protracted legal battle over the disclosure of records related to settlements and judgments paid by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

In August 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” from January 1, 1996 through July 31, 2003.

PLN requested a fee waiver for the documents, which the BOP promptly denied, claiming that PLN lacked the ability to effectively disseminate the information to the public.

PLN then filed suit, arguing it was entitled to a fee waiver. U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton agreed and granted summary judgment against the BOP. Round one to PLN. See: Prison Legal News v. Lappin, 436 F.Supp.2d 17 (D. D.C. 2006) [PLN, Sept. 2006, p.15].

Thereafter, federal prison officials provided PLN with over 11,000 documents; however, the vast majority were useless because they were so heavily redacted.

PLN filed another summary judgment motion, contending that the BOP failed to conduct an adequate search for records and that most of the redactions were improper. In support of its motion PLN argued the declaration of BOP paralegal Wilson J. Moorer, the sole piece of evidence relied upon by the BOP to support the adequacy of its search and asserted FOIA exemptions, was not based on personal knowledge and therefore did not constitute admissible evidence.

On March 26, 2009, Judge Walton again sided with PLN, ordering the BOP to conduct new searches or submit additional evidence showing they had “employed search methods reasonably likely to discover records responsive to plaintiff’s request and which shows that the responsive documents and parts of documents not produced to the plaintiff have properly been withheld under the FOIA exemptions claimed by the Bureau.” Round two to PLN. See: Prison Legal News v. Lappin, 603 F.Supp.2d 124 (D. D.C. 2009) [PLN, June 2009, p.26].

Following the court’s decision the BOP moved for reconsideration, claiming it had submitted additional declarations concerning the adequacy of its records search and redactions, but due to a purported “transmission error” the declarations were not filed by the court’s electronic docket system. Accordingly, the BOP asked the court to reconsider its ruling in light of that circumstance.

PLN opposed the BOP’s motion on fairness grounds, arguing that it was the responsibility of BOP’s counsel to monitor the docket and, as such, the defendants should not be permitted another “bite at the apple.”

Putting aside whether the BOP’s neglect in monitoring the docket was excusable, Judge Walton held the BOP’s additional evidence remained insufficient to support the alleged adequacy of its records search and asserted exemptions. The “declarants fall short of explaining, in reasonable detail, the scope and method of the search,” the court found.

“Without providing further description or specific detail concerning the search, the declarants’ conclusions that as a result of the search ‘all responsive claims were identified,’ do not provide sufficient information for the Court to independently determine if the search was adequate,” Judge Walton wrote.

Similarly, the court concluded that the BOP had failed to justify the FOIA exemptions it invoked. None of the BOP’s “newly filed” declarations addressed any of the exemptions, and the only other declaration in the record that did – Moorer’s – had been held inadmissible because it was not based on personal knowledge. As such, the record was devoid of an adequate basis “to find the Bureau’s invocation of the FOIA exemptions is proper,” the district court stated.

The BOP’s motion for reconsideration was therefore denied without prejudice on February 25, 2010. Round three for PLN. This case remains ongoing, with renewed cross-motions for summary judgment pending. PLN has been ably represented in this litigation by Ed Elder, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Radhika Miller, Carl Messineo and Adam Cook. See: Prison Legal News v. Lappin, U.S.D.C. (D. D.C.), Case No. 1:05-cv-01812-RBW.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Lappin