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Andela v. Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

February 20, 2014

VALENTINE B. ANDELA Plaintiff,
v.
ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE OF THE U.S. COURTS, U.S. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION - OFFICE OF RIGHTS, and UNKNOWN NAMED OFFICIALS IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

JOYNER, J.

Before the Court are Defendant Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”)’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 34), Plaintiff’s Cross Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 37), as well as Plaintiff’s Uncontested Motion for Leave to File Pretrial Memorandum (Doc. No. 38). For the following reasons, Plaintiff’s Uncontested Motion for Leave to File Pretrial Memorandum is GRANTED, [1] Defendant EEOC’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, and Plaintiff’s Cross Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED.

II. BACKGROUND

In 2007, Plaintiff Valentine Andela filed a Title VII complaint against the Universities of Miami and North Carolina-Chapel Hill with the EEOC. (Complaint, Doc. No. 6, at ¶ 13). The EEOC Miami District Office transferred the complaint to the Florida Commission for Human Relations (“FCHR”). Id. ¶ 14. On October 7, 2008, after the FCHR issued a decision, Mr. Andela requested that the EEOC conduct a substantial weight review. Id. ¶ 15; (Def. Mot. for Summary Judgment, Ex. A, Declaration of Stephanie D. Garner at ¶ 5).

In a declaration submitted by Stephanie D. Garner, Assistant Legal Counsel / FOIA Programs in the Office of Legal Counsel of the EEOC, Defendant EEOC states that EEOC staff conducted a substantial weight review of the FCHR’s decision. Garner Dec. ¶ 5. The District Director of the EEOC’s Miami District Office then issued a final decision to Mr. Andela though a Dismissal and Notice of Rights letter, stating that “The EEOC has adopted the findings of the state or local fair employment practices agency that investigated this charge.” Id. ¶ 6; (Def. Ex. 1).

On July 2, 2012, [2] Mr. Andela filed a FOIA request asking for a copy of the substantial weight review. Garner Dec. ¶ 7. The Miami Office reviewed the substantial weight review and determined that its contents were exempt from disclosure pursuant to FOIA exemption 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5). Id. ¶ 8. On July 26, 2012, the Miami Office produced a redacted copy of the substantial weight review to Mr. Andela. Id.; (Def. Ex. 2). On August 3, 2012, Mr. Andela appealed the Miami Office’s decision to the Office of Legal Counsel for the EEOC. Id. ¶ 9. The Office of Legal Counsel determined that some of the standard factual headings contained on the form had been incorrectly withheld. Id. ¶ 10. However, the Office of Legal Counsel also concluded that the balance of the redactions made by the Miami Office had been proper. Id.

Mr. Andela filed the instant lawsuit in this Court in February 2013. In May 2013, the Court dismissed sua sponte his constitutional and tort claims against the Administrative Office of the Courts, the U.S. Department of Education - Office of Civil Rights, and certain unknown defendants sued in their official capacities. (Doc. Nos. 4, 5). The Court did not dismiss Mr. Andela’s FOIA claim against the EEOC, which is plaintiff’s only remaining claim.[3]

During the present litigation, the EEOC disclosed to Mr. Andela a new version of the redacted substantial weight review, as well as a Vaughn Index. (Def. Exs. 4, 5). The new version of the document contains unredacted factual headings; the remainder of the document is redacted. (Def. Ex. 4).

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Typically, in deciding a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56(c), a court must determine “whether there is a genuine issue of material fact and, if not, whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Medical Protective Co. v. Watkins, 198 F.3d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1999) (internal citation omitted). All facts must be viewed and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in favor of the non-moving party. Travis G. V. New Hope-Solebury School District, 544 F.Supp.2d 435, 439 (E.D. Pa. 2008)(citing Troy Chemical Corp. v. Teamsters Union Local No. 408, 37 F.3d 123, 125-26 (3d Cir. 1994)); Oritani Savings & Loan Assn. v. Fidelity & Deposit Co. of Md., 989 F.2d 635, 638 (3d Cir. 1993). An issue of material fact is said to be genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Belmont v. MBInv. Partners, Inc., 708 F.3d 470, 483 n. 17 (3d Cir. 2013)(citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).

FOIA cases are often resolved in the district courts without discovery. See, e.g., Public Citizen Health Research Group v. F.D.A., 997 F.Supp. 56 (D.D.C. 1998), rev’d in part on other grounds, 185 F.3d 898 (C.A.D.C. 1999). The agency carries the burden of justifying the nondisclosure pursuant to an exemption. Coastal States Gas Corp. v. Department of Energy, 644 F.2d 969, 974 (3d Cir. 1981). “Affidavits are the means through which a government agency details the search it conducted for the documents requested and justifies nondisclosure under each exemption upon which it relied . . . .” Manchester v. Drug Enforcement Admin., U.S. Dept. Of Justice, 823 F.Supp. 1259, 1265 (E.D. Pa. 1993). “The affidavits must be detailed, nonconclusory, and submitted in good faith.” Id. (quoting Weisberg v. United States Dept. of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344, 1351 (D.C. Cir. 1983)). The court should not question the veracity of the agency’s submissions explaining the reasons for its nondisclosure unless there is evidence of bad faith. Id. (citing Manna v. United States Dept. of Justice, 815 F.Supp.798, 817 (D.N.J. 1993)); Ground Saucer Watch, Inc. v. C.I.A., 692 F.2d 770, 771 (C.A.D.C. 1981).[4] To create a triable issue of fact, the plaintiff must show that the claimed exemption has been improperly asserted by the agency. Public Citizen Health Research Group v. Food & Drug Admin., 185 F.3d 898, 905 (C.A.D.C. 1999).

IV. ANALYSIS

Mr. Andela’s FOIA claim focuses on a single two-page document: the substantial weight review conducted by the EEOC Miami District Office. While he contends that he has a right to its disclosure in full, unredacted form, the EEOC counters that it has properly redacted portions of the substantial weight review pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5).

FOIA mandates, upon request, the disclosure of records held by a federal agency. Department of Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Ass’n, 532 U.S. 1, 7 (2001). The exemptions to disclosure are to be narrowly construed, because “disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of the Act.” Id. (quoting Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976)). § 552(b)(5) exempts agencies from making publicly available their “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5). The exemption was intended by Congress to “embody an executive privilege with contours broad enough to protect the deliberative and decision-making processes of government.” Conoco Inc. v. U.S. Dept. Of Justice, 687 F.2d 724, 727 (3d Cir. 1982)(quoting NLRB v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 421 U.S. 132, 150 (1975)). The exemption is meant to “prevent injury to the quality of agency decisions” because “‘[t]he quality of a particular agency decision will clearly be affected by the communications received by the decisionmaker of the decision prior to the time the decision is made.’” Id. Exemption 5 protects “any document which would be ‘normally privileged in the civil discovery context.’” Conoco Inc. v. U.S. ...


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