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Shapiro v. United States Department of Justice

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

June 26, 2018

Ryan Noah Shapiro, Appellant
v.
United States Department of Justice, Appellee

          Argued February 23, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:13-cv-00729) Jeffrey Light argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.

          Jane M. Lyons, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for appellee.

          With her on the brief were Jessie K. Liu, U.S. Attorney, and R. Craig Lawrence, Assistant U.S. Attorney.

          Before: Rogers and Tatel, Circuit Judges, and Sentelle, Senior Circuit Judge.

          OPINION

          SENTELLE SENIOR CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, appellant-plaintiff Ryan Shapiro sought records from the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") relating to a deceased Internet activist. Following a search, the FBI released twenty-one responsive pages but redacted portions pursuant to exemptions from FOIA. Shapiro filed suit against the Department of Justice ("DOJ") for violating FOIA, arguing that the FBI incorrectly asserted FOIA exemptions and that its search was inadequate. During the pendency of the litigation, the FBI identified additional responsive pages, but withheld some of the additional pages and redacted portions of others pursuant to FOIA exemptions. Shapiro asserted objections to the FBI's application of FOIA exemptions to these pages as well. In a series of three opinions, the district court affirmed the FBI's assertion of FOIA exemptions and the adequacy of the FBI's search, granted the DOJ's motion for summary judgment, and denied Shapiro's cross-motion for summary judgment. Shapiro appealed.

         We agree with the district court that the FBI met its burden to demonstrate that its withholdings and redactions were justified under the FOIA exemptions. Therefore, we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the DOJ and denial of Shapiro's motion for summary judgment with regard to the FBI's assertion of FOIA exemptions. As to the adequacy of the FBI's search, we remand with respect to the records from FBI case identification number 315T-HQ-C1475879-IP, serial 91 ("Serial 91"). The FBI released a redacted version of Serial 91 to Shapiro following oral arguments. Accordingly, as to Serial 91, we vacate the district court's decision on the cross-motions and remand to the extent that any further proceedings are necessary.

         I. Background

         On January 14, 2013, appellant-plaintiff Shapiro made a FOIA request seeking FBI records "relating or referring to the deceased person Aaron H. Swartz." Swartz, the subject of Shapiro's FOIA request, committed suicide while awaiting a criminal trial for alleged unauthorized computer intrusions.

         "FOIA mandates broad disclosure of government records to the public, subject to nine enumerated exemptions." Wolf v. CIA, 473 F.3d 370, 374 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (citation omitted); see 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). In response to Shapiro's FOIA request, the FBI searched its Request Tracking System and its Central Records System for variations of Swartz's name and appropriate cross-references. After reviewing twenty-three responsive pages, the FBI released twenty-one pages in full or in part, labeled Swartz-1 through Swartz-21, and deleted two pages as duplicates, Swartz-22 and Swartz-23. Of the twenty-one released pages, seventeen pages were redacted pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7. Exemption 6 protects personally identifying or private information. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). Exemption 7 allows the government to withhold "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes" if the release of that information meets one of six conditions. Id. § 552(b)(7).

         Shapiro administratively appealed the FBI's FOIA response, arguing that the FBI's search was inadequate and that the FBI erred in asserting FOIA exemptions. The FBI failed to respond to Shapiro's administrative appeal within the statutorily mandated time. On May 20, 2013, Shapiro filed suit against the DOJ, as the FBI's parent agency, for violating FOIA.

         On July 22, 2013, the DOJ moved for summary judgment. The DOJ's motion was supported by the declaration of David Hardy, an FBI employee from the Records Management Division, which explained the scope of the search and the reasons for the FBI's assertion of FOIA exemptions. Shapiro opposed the DOJ's motion, and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. Shapiro argued that the FBI's search was inadequate, complained of missing enclosures, argued that the FBI improperly applied FOIA exemptions, and asserted that the FBI should not have redacted the names of its databases.

         While the motions were pending, the FBI altered its position regarding some of its redactions and submitted a declaration from Dennis Argall, another FBI employee in the Records Management Division. Argall's declaration acknowledged the identity of the database used by the FBI, "Accurint," because it posed "no harm," and he rescinded a reference to a different database, "Guardian," that had been made in error. Argall further ...


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