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Singh v. US Department of State

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

January 15, 2020

GURNEK SINGH and PAWAN DEEP KAUR, Plaintiffs,
v.
US DEPARTMENT OF STATE and MICHAEL R. POMPEO, in his official capacity as Secretary of State, Defendants.

          ORDER

          Thomas S. Zilly United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, docket no. 17 and Plaintiffs' Cross Motion for Summary Judgment, docket no. 20. Having reviewed all papers filed in support of and in opposition to the motions, as well as documents submitted for in camera review, the Court enters the following order.

         Background

         In late 2010, Plaintiff Gurnek Singh filed an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative on behalf of his wife, Plaintiff Pawan Deep Kaur. Ex. 2 to Stein Decl. (docket no. 18-2 at 2). By letter dated December 21, 2015, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi informed Plaintiff Kaur that she was found ineligible for an immigrant visa under Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) § 212 (a)(3)(b). Id. at 18-19.

         By fax dated February 19, 2017, Plaintiffs submitted a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request seeking:

Any and all documents or information regarding the December 2015 denial of an immigrant visa for [Pawan Deep Kaur] for being found ineligible under the following section of the Immigration and Nationality Act of the United States: INA 212(a)(3)(b) - Security-Related Grounds, Terrorism.

Id. at 2.

         On February 19, 2018, the Office of Information Programs and Services of the Department of State (“IPS”) informed Plaintiffs that it had located 94 responsive records. Ex. 6 to Stein Decl. (docket no. 18-6). Defendants informed Plaintiffs that it would release 38 of the documents in full, but that it was withholding 47 of the documents in full and 9 of the documents in part. Id. On March 26, 2019, IPS informed Plaintiffs that it had located 11 additional responsive documents, of which it would release four in full, five in part, and withhold two entirely. Ex. 7 to Stein Decl. (docket no. 18-7).

         On August 16, 2018, Plaintiffs filed this action, alleging that “[t]o date no documents have been produced.” Complaint (“Compl.”) ¶ 2. Plaintiffs seek to compel Defendants to conduct a search for any and all responsive records to the FOIA request, demonstrate that Defendants employed search methods reasonably likely to lead to the discovery of records, produce a Vaughn index, and enjoin Defendants from withholding any non-exempt responsive records. Docket no. 1 at 9. Plaintiffs also seek declaratory relief that the Defendants violated FOIA by failing to produce non-exempt records responsive to Plaintiffs' FOIA request within the twenty-day time period set forth in 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(i). After Defendants answered the complaint in November 2018, Defendants produced some documents pursuant to Plaintiffs' February 2017 FOIA request.[1] Plaintiffs now seek the production of other documents that have not been produced.

         Both parties have moved for summary judgment on the sufficiency of the Defendants' search, the adequacy of Defendants' Vaughn index, and the applicability of the exemptions justifying the withholding of responsive documents. Plaintiffs seek to require Defendants to conduct a search of responsive documents and demonstrate that the withheld documents fall within a valid exemption, or in the alternate, request that the Court view the documents in camera to determine whether the withheld documents fall within the stated exemptions.

         By minute order dated October 25, 2019, the Court ordered Defendants to supplement the Vaughn descriptions for documents numbered 13-14, 36-49, and 52-55.[2]Docket no. 24. The Court further ordered Defendants to produce those documents in camera and under ex parte seal for the Court's review. Id.

         FOIA Motion for Summary Judgment

         FOIA disputes may be-and often are-resolved via motions for summary judgment. Lane v. Dep't of Interior, 523 F.3d 1128, 1134 (9th Cir. 2008); Shannahan v. I.R.S., 637 F.Supp.2d 902, 912 (W.D. Wash. 2009). Facts are rarely in dispute in a FOIA case. Minier v. Cent. Intelligence Agency, 88 F.3d 796, 800 (9th Cir. 1996). Thus, the standard for summary judgment in a FOIA case generally requires a two-step inquiry. The burden of proof for both inquiries is on the Government, and the Court reviews the Government's response to the FOIA request on a de novo basis. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).

         The Court must first determine whether the Government fully discharged its obligations under FOIA by establishing that it conducted a search “reasonably calculated” to uncover all responsive documents. Zemansky v. U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency, 767 F.2d 569, 571 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing Weisberg v. United States Dep't. of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984)). This ...


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