D.C. Circuit Reinstates Prisoner’s FOIA Suit
by Derek Gilna
Carlos Marino, incarcerated for a 1997 drug conspiracy conviction, submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), seeking the agency’s investigative file for a co-conspirator who had testified against him at trial. The DEA denied his request and an administrative appeal, and Marino filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
He argued that most of the information sought in his FOIA request was in the “public domain” because it was disclosed during his trial, and that “the public interest in revealing the government misconduct he alleged outweighed the personal privacy interests the DEA had interposed.”
The DEA moved to dismiss, relying on FOIA Exemption 7(C) – which “allows an agency to withhold ‘information compiled for law enforcement purposes’ if disclosure ‘could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.’” Marino failed to respond and the district court granted summary judgment to the DEA.
Marino then filed a motion for reconsideration and a motion under Rule 60(b) for relief from judgment, citing a “grossly negligent” effort on the part of his attorney as an excuse for his failure to timely respond to the DEA’s motion.
Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(c)(1) allows a court to grant relief for failure to timely file if a party can show they have “a meritorious claim or defense to the motion upon which the district court dismissed the complaint.” Marino’s motions were denied and he appealed.
The D.C. Circuit reversed, finding that Marino had cleared the “meritorious defense” hurdle by showing that “vacating the judgment will not be an empty exercise or a futile gesture.”
The appellate court then addressed the public domain issue, triggered when “the prior disclosure establishes the existence (or not) of records responsive to the FOIA request.” The DEA objected that “Marino’s theory of the case is no defense because public information showing the existence of an investigatory file ... does not vitiate its right under FOIA exemption 7(C) to withhold the contents of that file.”
The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the public domain exception provided Marino “with a meritorious defense to the DEA’s summary judgment motion,” and remanded the case for the district court to consider the merits of Marino’s Rule 60(b) motion to vacate the summary judgment order. See: Marino v. DEA, 685 F.3d 1076 (D.C. Cir. 2012).
Following remand, Marino was released from prison then died before his claims were decided, and in December 2013 the district court designated a surviving family member, Griselle Marino, as a substitute plaintiff.
On February 19, 2014, the court denied the DEA’s renewed motion for summary judgment, writing that “The purpose of FOIA is to ‘pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny.’” The district court held the DEA was not entitled to summary judgment under Exemption 7(C), and that Marino had “demonstrated a significant public interest” in the requested documents, which showed the co-conspirator who testified against him at trial – Jose Everth Lopez – had committed perjury, and that a federal prosecutor had withheld evidence.
Marino’s cross-motion for summary judgment also was denied, and the case remains pending before the district court. See: Marino v. DEA, U.S.D.C. (D. D.C.), Case No. 1:06-01255-GK; 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20191.
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Marino v. DEA
|U.S.D.C. (D. D.C.), Case No. 1:06-01255-GK; 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20191
Marino v. DEA
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