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Lame v. United States Department of Justice

decided: July 15, 1985.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil No. 79-4047).

Higginbotham and Becker, Circuit Judges, and Cohill, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Higginbotham


This case is again before us wherein the plaintiff-appellant Anthony Lame ("Lame"), a freelance writer and a former investigative reporter, seeks, for a book he is writing, certain records of a major criminal investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") of two state legislators pursuant to a request made under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(1982)("FOIA").*fn1 The FBI denied disclosure under FOIA exemptions 7(C) (law enforcement information the disclosure of which would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy) and 7(D) (identities of confidential sources and information that they provide), 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(C) and (D),*fn2 which the district court upheld based on two affidavits filed by the FBI, one public and another in camera.*fn3

When this matter was first before us, it was reversed and remanded because, in the view of the panel, "the procedure employed . . . did not result in the district court being furnished with the necessary information essential to its rulings" and thus this court could not "approve the manner in which the district court proceeded." The matter was therefore "remanded for proceedings consistent with" the opinion in Lame v. United States Department of Justice, 654 F.2d 917, 929 (3d Cir. 1981) (" Lame I "). The FBI was directed to file an in camera affidavit presenting detailed justifications for the withholding of each requested document and all the documents were to be made available to the district court for its in camera inspection.

Upon remand, the FBI and the district court scrupulously complied with our order. The FBI prepared the detailed in camera affidavit required by this court and the district court, on the basis of that affidavit and of its own study of all 312 responsive documents, upheld the claims of exemption for all but a few isolated items.

In addition to the 7(C) and 7(D) exemption claims, the district court also upheld claims of exemption, made for the first time on remand, under exemptions 2 (internal practices), 3 (matters exempt from disclosure by other statutes, here Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e), covering grand jury materials), and 7(E) (investigative techniques), 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(2), (3) and (7)(E).*fn4 The district court granted the government's motion for summary judgment and denied the plaintiff's cross-motion. In support of this decision, the district court filed two opinions. The first opinion, 31 pages in length, sets forth the district court's rulings of law and is on the public record. Appendix ("App.") at 89a-119a. The second one, which is 49 pages, sets forth findings of fact and is under seal. The district court provided a copy of the sealed opinion to the government but not to plaintiff.


At the outset we should note the unique problems inherent in the scope of review in FOIA cases. The statute provides that the district "court shall determine the matter de novo, and may examine the contents of such agency records in camera to determine whether such records or any part thereof shall be withheld under any of the exemptions set forth in subsection (b) of the section, and the burden is on the agency to sustain its action." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). As the Seventh Circuit noted recently, it is

somewhat ironic that legislation intended to open up the workings of executive agencies incorporates a scheme of judicial review designed to be closed in large part not only to the public but to adverse parties.

Stein v. Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation, 662 F.2d 1245, 1252 (7th Cir. 1981). And, although such in camera reviews are not generally favored for the reasons articulated in Vaughn v. Rosen, 157 U.S. App. D.C. 340, 484 F.2d 820, 823 (D.C. Cir. 1973), cert. denied, 415 U.S. 977, 39 L. Ed. 2d 873, 94 S. Ct. 1564 (1974) (" Vaughn I "),*fn5 the decision of the district court to conduct an in camera review has not been directly challenged by either party in this case.*fn6

What concerns us in the present case is the ambit of our responsibilities as an appellate court. It is axiomatic that as to those conclusions of the district court which deal solely with the construction of the plain meaning or the language of a statute or the application of the relevant precedent, our review is plenary. On those issues of "law," we are not bound by the district court's review of the law. However, when we are dealing with facts, our function is not to retry issues of fact de novo or substitute our judgment with respect to such issues for that of the trier of facts. We are called upon to simply determine whether, as a matter of law, the permissible findings sustain the judgment. As to those factual findings of the district court, we are governed by the clearly erroneous rule on review, Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a), and may reverse only if the findings are unsupported by substantial evidence, lack adequate evidentiary support in the record, are against the clear weight of the evidence or where the district court has misapprehended the weight of the evidence.

Normally, as an appellate court, we review the grant or denial of a summary judgment motion by the same standard as that employed by the trial court initially under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c) -- a summary judgment is proper as a matter of law when it appears (a) that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact in dispute and (b) that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

While the matter before us is categorized as an appeal from the grant of summary judgment, by reason of the "peculiarity" of the procedures under FOIA, in reality we are dealing with a hybrid summary judgment. In the typical case, in order for the trial judge to ascertain what material facts exist without substantial controversy and what material facts are actually and in good faith controverted, the opposing party may either note that the documentation submitted by the moving party contains actual disputed material facts or submit counter-affidavits or documentation to establish a disputed material fact. See ...

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