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D.C. Circuit reinstates prisoner's FOIA case on "Public Domain" grounds

Carlos Marino, incarcerated for a 1997 drug conspiracy conviction, in 2004 submitted a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seeking all information that had already made public in his criminal trials in 1997 and 1998. The DEA denied his initial request and his administrative appeal and he filed a suit with the D.C. District Court.

Marino argued that most of the information he sought with his request was in the "public domain," and must be released, and that "the public interest in revealing the government misconduct he alleged outweighed the personal privacy interests the DEA had interposed." The DEA relied on exemption 7(C), Marino failed to respond, and the District court granted summary judgment.

Marino, then through amicus counsel, filed a motion for reconsideration, citing a "grossly negligent" effort on the part of his first 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 get relief for failure to timely file if he can show that he has "a meritorious claim or defense to the motion upon which the district court dismissed the complaint." See: Murray v. District of Columbia, 52 F.3d 353, 355 (D.C. Cir. 1995). The District Court also denied this motion, and Marino appealed.

The Appeals Court reversed, establishing the Marino had cleared the "meritorious defense" hurdle by showing that "vacating the judgment will not be an empty exercise or a futile gesture." See: Murray, 52 F.3d at 355. As the Appeals Court said, "This is not a high bar."

The Appeals Court then addressed the public domain issue, triggered when "the prior disclosure establishes the existence (or not) of records responsive to the FOIA request." See: Wolf v. Cent. Intelligence Agency, 473 F.3d 370, 379 (D.C. Cir. 2007). The DEA objected that "Marino's theory of the case is no defense because public information showing the existence of an investigatory file in (his) name does not vitiate its right under FOIA exemption 7(C) to withhold the contents of that file."

The court disagreed, finding that the public domain exception provided Marino, "with a meritorious defense to the DEA's summary judgment motion," and remanded the proceedings to the District Court to consider the merits of Marino's Rule 60(b)(6) motion to vacate.

See: Marino v. DEA, et al., 10-5354, U.S. Crt. of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

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Related legal case

Marino v. DEA, et al.