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Williams v. U.S. Dept of Justice

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

May 27, 2016

LACY LEE WILLIAMS, JR., #0442843 Plaintiff,
U.S. DEPT. OF JUSTICE, NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION, MARY FRANCES RONAN, DEBRA STEIDEL WALL, Deputy Archivist of the United States National Archives and Records Administration, Defendants.


          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge

         Lacy Lee Williams Jr. an inmate at the Maury Correctional Institution in North Carolina, is suing Defendants under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552 and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a.[1] See Compl., ECF No. 1. Williams supplemented his complaint at my direction. See Order; Suppl., ECF No. 6.

         I. BACKGROUND

         I incorporate the background of this case as discussed in my March 18, 2016, Order. In summary, beginning on April 13, 2014, Williams submitted requests to the Department of Justice (“Justice”) and to the National Archives and Records Administration (“Archives”) for records concerning his forbearers who were in slavery in the United States. See Compl. 2. Williams seeks injunctive relief and damages. See Id. 4-6. He asks for “paperwork” to enjoin his continued enslavement and $1 million dollars for each year his relatives suffered as slaves. Id. at 4-5. He also seeks one acre of land for each year his relatives were forced to turn over their property without due compensation. Id. at 5. Williams’s records requests and the responses he received are summarized below.

         A. Records Request of April 13, 2014, to Justice

         On April 13, 2014, Williams requested records concerning his “native American Indians/Asiatic African aboriginal relatives forced into slavery here in the U.S.A. in the 1400s until the 1900s.” Compl. 2. He also sought documents pertaining to international human rights. Additionally, Williams requested “proper citizenship, change of name, social security, pardon/expungement of criminal records, reperation [sic] forms and etcetera.” Id. Williams’s request, however, did not provide names or other identifying information to focus the scope of his request and to enable a reasonable search of records. See Order 1-2.

         Williams states the Justice Correspondence Unit of the Civil Rights Division responded to his FOIA request on May 22, 2014, stating “[r]equest for information/documents is one within the jurisdiction of the courts or the state. This Department has no authority to take any action in the matter.” Suppl. 6-7.[2] Williams appealed the determination to Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP). See Id. at 7; June 8, 2014, Appeal, Suppl., Ex. H, ECF No. 6-9. By letter dated September 3, 2014, OIP explained that “[t]he FOIA does not require agencies to conduct research for you, to analyze data, to answer questions, or to create new records in response to a FOIA request.” Sept. 3, 2014, Denial, Suppl., Ex. K, ECF No. 6-12; see also Suppl. 7-8. Further, because each federal agency maintains and processes FOIA requests for its own records and Williams was requesting historical records, OIP suggested that he contact Archives. Sept. 3, 2014, Response. Williams was informed that the OIP decision was administratively appealable to the Director of the OIP within sixty days. Id.

         B. Records Request of July 3, 2014, to Justice

         Williams next wrote to Justice, requesting “documents concerning reperations [sic] to repair the damages and acts done to Lacy Lee Williams Jr. forefathers and mothers, placed in slavery without due compensation for their labor since the 1400’s until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862.” Suppl. 3-4; July 3, 2014, Request, Suppl., Ex. C, ECF No. 6-4. He asked for forms to collect debts owed to him from the United States Government for the last 600 years. July 3, 2014, Request.

         C. Records Request of July 5, 2014, to Archives

         On July 5, 2014, Williams requested from Archives copies of the Declaration of Independence, laws related to the slave trade, and “any and all documents, original or copies of Lacy Lee Williams, Jr. forefathers and mothers DNA, names and locations of the plantations where they were slaves since the 1400’s until 1865.” Suppl. 4; July 5, 2014, Request, Suppl., Ex. D, ECF No. 6-5. He also sought documents pertaining to the names of overseers, businesses, and profits associated with his forebears. July 5, 2014, Request.

         On September 30, 2014, Williams received a letter from Mary Frances Ronan, in the Archival Operations Section of Archives. Sept. 30, 2014, Response, Suppl., Ex. M, ECF No. 6-14. The letter reads in part:

This is in response to your Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request (RD-44356) received in this office on September 25, 2014, requesting copies of “any or all” unspecified documents relating to the history of slavery, human rights, citizenship, and your personal relatives going back to the 1400s.
The Freedom of Information Act (U.S.C. 552) as amended does not obligate a Federal Agency to perform general research of the type you requested. Requests must be reasonably specific in nature, not requiring extensive researching and identification of documents which may or may not pertain to your subject. The overwhelming proportion of records in our custody are [sic] already open and available for research use, including records pertaining to genealogy. We can provide information about the records, make them available for use in our research rooms, and provide specific documents for a fee. We are not staffed to provide general research service.
. . .
Our inability to do substantive research for you does not constitute a denial for the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act. If you consider this an adverse response, you may appeal by writing within 35 days of receipt of this letter to the Deputy Archivist (ND), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001, and explain why you think our search does not meet the requirements of the FOIA.

Id. Williams appealed. See Dec. 22, 2015, Response, Suppl., Ex. P, ECF 6-17 (noting the letter of Williams’s appeal was ...

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