United States District Court, D. Maryland
K. Bredar Chief Judge
2014, Plaintiff Ed Goldner submitted a Freedom of Information
Act (“FOIA”) request to Defendant Social Security
Administration and ultimately did not receive all of the
information he requested. (See Compl. ¶¶
5, 8, ECF No. 1.) After appealing within the agency,
Plaintiff brought this lawsuit against Defendant in May 2017.
(See id.) Before the Court is Defendant's motion
for summary judgment. (ECF No. 19.) Plaintiff responded in
opposition to the motion (ECF No. 20) and Defendant replied
(ECF No. 24). There is no need for a hearing to resolve the
matter. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). There is
no genuine dispute of material fact in regard to the
reasonableness of Defendant's search and the propriety of
Defendant's decision to withhold certain information
under an FOIA exemption. Accordingly, Defendant's motion
for summary judgment will be granted and judgment will be
entered for the Defendant by accompanying order.
are three types of persons who represent claimants in social
security disability (“SSD”) claims before
Defendant: attorneys, non-attorneys who are eligible for
direct pay from Defendant, and non-attorneys who are not
eligible for direct pay (“non-eligible
non-attorneys”). (See Decl. of Patricia Boyd
¶ 8, Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 9, ECF No. 19-10.) Non-eligible
non-attorneys could include “non-professional[s] such
as a friend, neighbor, or minister [of the claimant].”
Privacy Act of 1974; as Amended Proposed Alteration to an
Existing Privacy Act System of Records, and New Routine Use,
74 Fed. Reg. 51, 940, 51, 941 (Oct. 8, 2009).
sent an FOIA request to Defendant on November 6, 2013,
requesting the first, middle, and last name, city and state
for all attorneys and non-eligible non-attorneys who were
currently representing clients in ongoing SSD claims.
(See Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 1, ECF No. 19-2.) Plaintiff
also requested, “[i]f it [was] permissible under the
act, ” the “business name, business address,
business phone number and business email” of these
individuals. (Id.) In response, Defendant searched
its Modernized Claims System (“MCS”) database.
(See Decl. of Phyllis Green ¶ 27, Mot. Summ. J.
Ex. 4, ECF No. 19-5; Boyd Decl. ¶ 10.) Although other
databases contained this information, the MCS was searchable
by representative and claim type, even if it did not contain
email addresses or distinguish between personal and business
addresses or phone numbers. (Boyd Decl. ¶¶ 5-11.)
to this search, Defendant produced 1, 221 pages of documents.
Plaintiff wanted more and appealed, and received the
following information in September 2014: name, city, and
state of attorneys and non-eligible non-attorneys
representing clients in ongoing SSD claims, as well as
telephone numbers for the attorneys. (Green Decl. ¶ 10.)
The SSA did not provide additional information such as
“business addresses” or telephone numbers (for
non-eligible non-attorneys), claiming it could not determine
that this information was not personal and that personal
contact information is exempt under FOIA Exemption 6.
(See Mot. Summ. J. Exs. 2-3, ECF Nos. 19-3 through
19-4.) FOIA Exemption 6 covers “personnel and medical
and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a
clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” 5
U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). Plaintiff claims that
Defendant's refusal to turn over additional information,
such as the addresses and emails of attorney and non-eligible
non-attorney representatives, and the phone numbers of
non-eligible non-attorney representatives, was a violation of
FOIA. (Compl. ¶¶ 9-12.) Defendant moved for summary
Standard of Decision
Motions for summary judgment are a particularly common
vehicle for resolving FOIA claims, see Wickwire Gavin
P.C. v. U.S. Postal Service, 356 F.3d 588, 591 (4th Cir.
2004), but the standard remains the same as that applied in
almost all civil cases: “The court shall grant summary
judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute
as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The
burden remains the same as well, i.e. it is on the moving
party - the agency - to demonstrate the absence of any
genuine dispute of material fact. See Freeman v. U.S.
Dept. of Justice, 808 F.2d 834, 1986 WL 18310, at *2
(4th Cir. 1986) (unpublished table decision). “In
meeting this burden, the agency may rely upon reasonably
detailed, nonconclusory affidavits and declarations submitted
in good faith.” Id. As in any review of a
summary judgment motion, if sufficient evidence exists for a
reasonable jury to render a verdict in favor of the party
opposing the motion, then the motion should be denied.
See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242,
248 (1986). However, the belief of the Plaintiff alone
“that there are other documents he is entitled to . . .
is inadequate to withstand a motion for summary
judgment.” Heily v. U.S. Dep't of
Commerce, 69 F. App'x 171, 174 (4th Cir. 2003). This
is because agency declarations are “accorded a
presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted by
‘purely speculative claims about the existence and
discoverability of other documents.'” SafeCard
Servs., Inc. v. S.E.C., 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.D.C.
1991) ((quoting Ground Saucer Watch, Inc. v. CIA,
692 F.2d 770, 771 (D.C. Cir. 1981)). “To prevail over
this presumption, a requestor must demonstrate a material
issue by producing evidence, through affidavits or other
appropriate means, contradicting the adequacy of the search
or suggesting bad faith.” Heily, 69 F.
App'x at 173.
argues that summary judgment is warranted in its favor
because it has demonstrated with declarations from its
personnel that it conducted a reasonable search and only
withheld information it located that was exempt from FOIA.
Plaintiff argues that Defendant did not conduct a reasonable
search and the information withheld was not exempt from FOIA.
As a preliminary matter, Plaintiff also contends that summary
judgment is inappropriate at this time because Plaintiff has
not had an opportunity to conduct discovery. The Court will
address the question of whether discovery is necessary, and
then proceed to discuss the merits of the summary judgment
Discovery is the exception and not the rule in FOIA cases.
See Schrecker v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 217
F.Supp.2d 29, 35 (D.D.C. 2002). “Discovery in FOIA
[cases] is rare and should be denied where an agency's
declarations are reasonably detailed, submitted in good faith
and the court is satisfied that no factual dispute
remains.” Id.; see also Heily, 69 F.
App'x at 174 (“It is well-established that
discovery may be greatly restricted in FOIA cases.”).
Though “[d]iscovery is usually not allowed at all if
the Court is satisfied that the affidavits/declarations
submitted by the agency are sufficiently detailed,
non-conclusory, and submitted in good faith, ” it may
be appropriate in certain cases. Tamayo v. U.S. Dep't
of Justice, 544 F.Supp.2d 1341, 1343-44 (S.D. Fla.
2008). Even in such cases, however, discovery is
“[n]ormally . . . deemed appropriate only after the
agency has moved for summary judgment and submitted
affidavits or declarations.” Id. at 1343.
Court finds no reason to order discovery in this FOIA case.
Defendant has submitted two declarations of agency personnel
explaining in detail the process by which Defendant searched
its records in response to Plaintiff's request. These
declarations outline Defendant's different databases
containing information on representatives, state that only
one of these databases is searchable by claim type, state how
this database is populated and the nature of the data, and
clarify, ultimately, why Defendant chose to search this
particular database in this particular manner to respond
effectively to Plaintiff's request. (See Green
Decl. ¶¶ 27-29; Boyd Decl. ¶¶ 5-11.)
Plaintiff, in response, offers no declarations, affidavits,
or any evidence or argument suggesting that the
Defendant's declarations were not in good faith.
does, however, offer “purely speculative claims about
the existence” of other databases based on a
hyper-technical reading of the declarants' statements.
See SafeCard Servs., Inc. 926 F.2d at 1200. For
example, Plaintiff notes that Phyllis Green, Acting Deputy
Executive Director for the Office of Privacy and Disclosure
in Defendant's General Counsel Office, declared that
Defendant “searched ‘one of its
databases, ” and that Patricia Boyd, an IT Specialist
who works for Defendant, “admits Defendant
‘maintains other systems that process disability data,
' but only lists one other such system.” (Opp'n
at 5 (emphasis in the original) (quoting Green Decl. ¶
27 and Boyd Decl. ¶ 11).) Aside from the fact that
Plaintiff reads too much into the declarants' language,
he also misses the point of his discovery challenge. Even if
Ms. Green and Ms. Boyd did mean to suggest that there are
other databases, that does not alone entitle Plaintiff to