D.C. Circuit rules in favor of Prison Legal News' appeal against Bureau of Prisons

Jacob Donnelly | Freedom of Information | News | June 12, 2015

The Federal Bureau of Prisons's categorical justification of redactions in a freedom of information suit filed by Prison Legal News was not appropriate, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled last week.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus brief in the case.

In FOIA cases, the government has the burden of showing that an exemption is warranted. The prison bureau initially produced no records and denied PLN’s request for a fee waiver after PLN filed a FOIA request in 2003 seeking all documents related to the money the bureau paid in connection with lawsuits and claims brought against the bureau from January 1, 1996, to July 31, 2003.

After PLN brought suit in 2005, the BOP gave PLN 11,000 pages of documents, 2,993 of which contained redactions. The BOP was then required to produce Vaughn declarations, which require federal agencies to justify each redaction with as much specificity as possible.

The BOP initially submitted a categorical declaration describing each document and the type of information redacted, and the declaration contained only a blanket statement asserting the importance of protecting personally identifiable information and stating that the public interest in knowing the identities of those involved in claims claims against the BOP was minimal.

“If you withhold the name of someone accused of wrongdoing, for example, if that same person is just doing the same kind of thing over and over and never facing any discipline, there’s no way for you to suss that out from the documents,” Ronald London, PLN’s attorney and of counsel at Davis Wright Tremaine, said. “You can’t have an analytically sound reaction to the documents in that kind of case.”

Most of the claims filed against the BOP were those inmates filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act and those by filed by employees through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Merit Systems Protection Board. The BOP applied FOIA exemptions 6 and 7(C) to the redacted information,which mostly comprised personal information. Exemption 6 permits the government to withhold personnel and medical files, while exemption 7(C) permits the withholding of law enforcement files. Importantly, however, for the exemptions to apply, the release of such information must constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

The BOP updated its initial declaration three more times, and the district court accepted the BOP’s Vaughn declarations the fourth time. However, the appeals court ruled that the final Vaughn declarations — this time broken down by document — were still too cursory.

“[The BOP’s declarations fail] to distinguish between redacting the identity of the alleged victim and the identity of the alleged perpetrator,” the appeals court said. “The Bureau has made no effort to distinguish between the privacy interests of employees who are victims and those who are perpetrators.”

The appeals court also said the disclosures the BOP had already made showed inconsistency without explanation. It added that it was not impermissible for Vaughn declarations to be made categorically but that the manner in which BOP did so was too broad.

“The privacy interest of tort claimants will be different when they are claiming injury from a slip and fall as compared to a sexual assault,” the court wrote. “The EEOC claims also present a diverse picture and can hardly be considered a category that ‘characteristically support[s] an inference’ that the statutory requirements for exemption are satisfied.”

Contrary to the BOP’s argument, the court also ruled that there was a significant public interest in knowing the identities of employees engaged in “tortious and discriminatory conduct,” although it did rule that the BOP’s search for responsive documents had been adequate.

The case now returns to district court for another round of Vaughn declarations, unless the government concedes the point.

“I would hope this would be their last chance to justify their withholdings,” London said, noting that the litigation has been ongoing for a decade.

PLN filed a new lawsuit against the BOP last week over the same type of records over a different range of dates, London added, noting that the new documents showed many of the same types of redactions.

A BOP spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Federal Open Government Guide: How to file a FOIA lawsuit

· rcfp.org: http://www.rcfp.org/category/glossary-terms/vaughn-index