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Goldner v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 13, 2017

ED GOLDNER, Plaintiff


          James K. Bredar Chief Judge

         In 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.

         I. Facts

         There 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).

         Plaintiff 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.)

         Subsequent 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.)[1] Defendant moved for summary judgment.

         II. 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.

         III. Analysis

         Defendant 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 motion.

         a. Discovery

          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.

         The 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.

         Plaintiff 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 ...

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