A U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. has ruled that while a federal agency must conduct an adequate search for records when responding to a federal Freedom of Information Act request, the agency is not necessarily required to search every system of records in its possession or contact other agencies that may have information relevant to the request.
Julian White, a Texas dentist, unsuccessfully challenged the adequacy of a search conducted by the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys for court documents from a federal prosecution. White's brother had gone missing after serving as an informant in Louisiana and "helping to put away some felony car theft operators," according to Daniel Stotter, White's attorney.
White believed that information from that prosecution might provide some clues on his brother's whereabouts, Stotter said.
White claimed the agency erred by not searching all of its internal records and failing to seek related information from the FBI that might have helped to uncover responsive records. However, the court rejected White's argument, noting he had not specifically asked the agency to conduct such searches in his FOIA request.
“There is no requirement that an agency search every record system, but the agency must conduct a good faith, reasonable search of those systems of records likely to possess the requested information,” wrote the court.
In 2007, White filed a FOIA request with the FBI seeking records related to his missing brother. In response, he received redacted records relating to the bureau's investigation into his brother’s disappearance. The records revealed that White’s brother had been assisting FBI field divisions with an investigation wherein at least one defendant was arrested for violating a federal law and had either pleaded guilty or been convicted. The records also provided the FBI file number associated with that investigation.
White then submitted a FOIA request to the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, seeking court filings from the prosecution of that defendant. He requested “all court filings” from the case involving the FBI file number, the name of the prosecuting assistant U.S. attorney, and the statute that was violated, as well as any related records possessed by that office or the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, which covers Brooklyn and Long Island.
Assuming White’s brother was the defendant in the case for which he sought the records, the agency entered the FBI file number in the Legal Information Office Network System database, which tracks, among other proceedings, criminal investigations. The agency also searched the docket filing system for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York using the brother's name as the defendant. When White was notified that both searches produced no responsive records, he sued the Department of Justice, alleging the agency had failed to conduct an adequate search.
The court disagreed, emphasizing that “the adequacy of a search is determined by the search parameters, not the outcome.”
Here, the court found that the agency had searched “the only relevant system using the most relevant information provided,” and White had not shown the existence of “reasonable alternative methods.”
The court rejected White’s suggestion that the agency was required to search all the systems of records it maintained, noting that his request had only provided the FBI file number, his brother’s name, and the name of the prosecutor. Because the FOIA request did not specify where the agency should conduct its search, according to the court, the agency had discretion to confine its search to a “central filing system” if further searches were “unlikely to produce any marginal return.”
White also unsuccessfully argued that the U.S. Attorney's Office should have contacted the bureau to obtain the docket number of the case connected to the FBI file number, and then conducted a search using the docket number.
However, the court found prior cases where courts had required agencies to expand the scope of their searches distinguishable from White’s case.
“[N]one of the cases relied on by Plaintiff support requiring the USAO to obtain additional information from other agencies in order to perform an adequate search for responsive documents in their own record system,” wrote the court.
White was, the court said, essentially asking the agency to “create a document linking the FBI file number provided in his request with a Court docket number,” and then conduct a search using the docket number, an extra step the agency was not required to take.
White also unsuccessfully argued that since the records he received earlier from the FBI referred to a criminal case connected to the FBI file number, then the agency “must have” relevant court filings.
“While the Court appreciates the basic logic of Plaintiff’s contention, ‘the fact that responsive documents once existed does not mean that they remain in the [agency’s] custody today or that the [agency] had a duty under FOIA to retain the records,” wrote the court. “Even where it ‘strains credulity’ to think that the requested documents do not exist, that alone is not a sufficient basis to ‘undermine the determination that the agency conducted an ‘adequate search for the requested records.’”
The court also rejected White’s claim that the agency’s affidavit – which explained the system searched, the terms used, and a description of why that system was likely to hold responsive documents – was not detailed enough.
“Although the affidavit could in theory be more detailed, that fact alone does not warrant denying summary judgment in favor of Defendant,” wrote the court.
Stotter said his client plans to appeal the ruling.
"We have better than 50/50 odds of winning," Stotter said. However, he said his client's chances depend on which judges rule on the case, as "adequacy [of search] is in the eyes of the beholder."
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the ruling.