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Beagles v. U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 7, 2019

EDDIE BEAGLES, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR WAGE AND HOUR DIVISION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 34), filed October 18, 2018; Defendants' Response to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Defendants' Cross Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 35), filed November 8, 2018; Plaintiff's Reply to Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 40), filed December 21, 2018; and Defendants' Reply to Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 43), filed March 5, 2019. Having considered the briefs, the record of the case, and relevant law, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 34), is DENIED, Defendants' Cross Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 35), is GRANTED, and Plaintiff's claims are DISMISSED as set forth below.

         I. Background

         On September 3, 2013, Plaintiff submitted a request to the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division (“Defendant”) pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552, the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). (Doc. 1-2 at 8). Plaintiff asked for documents and materials about a charge he brought against his former employer, the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (“NMDWS”), and the resulting correspondence between NMDWS and Defendant. Id.

         On September 23, 2013, Defendant responded to Plaintiff's request by providing 80 pages of disclosable documents, which were partially redacted, and stating it was withholding 18 documents in their entirety. Id. at 9. Defendant stated the information that was withheld was exempt from disclosure pursuant to FOIA Exemptions 4, 5, 6, 7(c), 7(d), and 7(e). Id. at 9-10 (citing 5 U.S.C. §§ 552(b)(4), (5), (6), and (7)). Defendant explained that Exemption 4 protects “trade secrets, commercial, or financial information obtained from a person that is privileged or confidential, ” and that, before releasing this information, Defendant must go through the “EO 12600 process.” Id. at 10.[1] Defendant further explained that this process requires advising the submitter of the confidential information of the FOIA request and “soliciting views as to whether the disclosure would cause substantial harm if the information is released.” Id. Therefore, Defendant instructed Plaintiff to notify Defendant if he wished to obtain documents pursuant to the EO 12600 process. Id.

         In addition to explaining the EO 12600 process for information withheld under Exemption 4, Defendant advised Plaintiff that he could appeal Defendant's decision to withhold information under the other exemptions by filing an appeal with the Solicitor of Labor within 90 days. Id. at 11. Defendant explained the appeal must: (1) state, in writing, the grounds for the appeal, including any supporting statements or arguments; (2) be addressed to the Solicitor of Labor in Washington, D.C.; and (3) be clearly marked “Freedom of Information Act Appeal” on the envelope and letter of appeal itself. Id.

         On October 1, 2013, Plaintiff sent a letter to Defendant “to request the additional documents covered by EO 12600 process.” Id. at 12. Plaintiff stated that he would like the information contained in “Exemption 4-All, Exemption 5-All, Exception [sic] 7/c.” Id. On December 5, 2013, Defendant responded to Plaintiff's request by stating that Exemptions 5 and 7(c) are not part of the EO 12600 process and providing documents that had been withheld pursuant to Exemption 4. Id. at 13. Because portions of these documents were still redacted under Exemption 7(c), Defendant informed Plaintiff that his request was denied in part. Therefore, Defendant again explained that Plaintiff could file an appeal with the Solicitor of Labor within 90 days and set forth the requirements for the appeal process, i.e., stating in writing the grounds for the appeal, addressing the appeal to the Solicitor of Labor in Washington, D.C., and clearly marking “Freedom of Information Act Appeal” on the envelope and letter of appeal. Id. at 14.

         On December 15, 2013, Plaintiff sent a letter to Defendant titled “Freedom of Information Act Appeal.” (Doc. 1-3 at 1). Plaintiff stated he was appealing Defendant's decision to redact and withhold information in four documents, which Plaintiff titled Exhibits A-D and attached to his letter. Plaintiff stated that portions of Exhibits A, C, and D should not have been redacted, and that the two lists described in Exhibit B should have been provided to him. Id. at 1-2; (Doc. 35-6 at 1-6). Defendant responded to Plaintiff's appeal on January 14, 2014, stating it had received the appeal and it was being processed. (Doc. 1-3 at 3).

         Plaintiff states that in January 2015 he hired an attorney to inquire as to the status of his appeal. (Doc. 34 at 2, ¶ 6). On May 5, 2016, Plaintiff filed his Complaint in state court and, on June 1, 2016, Defendant removed the case to this Court. (Doc. 1). On September 6, 2017, the Court dismissed Defendant Saavedra as an improper party, and found that Plaintiff had exhausted his administrative remedies as to Defendant U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. (Docs. 24, 26). The Court also granted NMDWS's motion for summary judgment and dismissed NMDWS from the case. (Docs. 25, 27).

         On September 5, 2018, Defendant sent Plaintiff seven pages of documents in response to Plaintiff's FOIA appeal. (Doc. 34 at 2, ¶ 10); (Doc. 35 at 3, ¶ 12); (Doc. 35-8 at 1-7). These documents were identical to Exhibits A-D of Plaintiff's December 15, 2013 letter, but with fewer redactions, and included the two lists described in Exhibit B. Compare (Doc. 35-6 at 1-6) with (Doc. 35-8 at 1-7). In addition, on September 14, 2018, Defendant sent Plaintiff a Vaughn index, which explained the documents were redacted pursuant to Exemption 6. (Doc. 35-9 at 1-2).

         In his Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff contends Defendant improperly withheld 18 documents in response to his FOIA request. (Doc. 34 at 4). He challenges the exemptions Defendant applied to the 18 documents, and states that Defendant failed to identify whether the seven pages it produced on September 5, 2018, were part of the 18 documents that were initially withheld. Id. at 4-10. Plaintiff asks the Court to “either review the 18 documents to see if any of the FOIA exemptions apply, or order their production.” Id. at 10. In addition, Plaintiff asks the Court to award him attorney's fees and costs. Id. at 10-11.

         In its Response/Cross Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant states that the only remaining issue in this case is whether Plaintiff is entitled to unredacted copies of the seven pages Defendant produced on September 5, 2018. (Doc. 35 at 3-4, 7). Defendant contends these are the only documents that were the subject of Plaintiff's FOIA appeal, and that Plaintiff did not appeal any of the remaining documents that were withheld in response to his FOIA request. Id. Defendant also argues it properly and lawfully redacted the seven pages pursuant to Exemption 6, and that Plaintiff's request for attorney's fees is premature. Id. at 7-11.

         In his Reply/Response to Defendant's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff states that he appealed Defendant's decision to withhold 18 documents and redact 33 pages in response to his FOIA request. (Doc. 40 at 1). Plaintiff argues Defendant has failed to meet its burden under FOIA to demonstrate it properly withheld information, and that the seven pages Defendant produced on September 5, 2018, do not fully address Plaintiff's FOIA appeal. Id. at 1-3. In Defendant's Reply to its Cross Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant reiterates that the only documents at issue are Exhibits A-D attached to Plaintiff's FOIA appeal, and that Defendant properly redacted those documents pursuant to Exemption 6. (Doc. 43 at 6-9).

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate “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). A fact is material if it could have an effect on the outcome of the suit. Smothers v. Solvay Chems., Inc., 740 F.3d 530, 538 (10th Cir. 2014). A dispute over a material fact is genuine if the evidence presented could allow a rational jury to find in favor of the non-moving party. EEOC v. Horizon/CMS Healthcare Corp., 220 F.3d 1184, 1190 (10th Cir. 2000). In considering a summary judgment motion, the court views the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. Shero v. City of Grove, 510 F.3d 1196, 1200 (10th Cir. 2007).

         A party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing that there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact. Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998). When that party does not have the burden of persuasion at trial, it can satisfy its burden at the summary judgment stage by identifying a lack of evidence on an essential element of the claim. Id. at 671. If the movant satisfies its burden, the burden then shifts to the non-movant. Id.

         The party opposing summary judgment cannot rest on the pleadings but must go beyond the pleadings and “designate specific facts so as to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case in order to survive summary judgment.” Sealock v. Colo., 218 F.3d 1205, 1209 (10th Cir. 2000). The non-movant must set forth specific facts from which a rational trier of fact could find in the non-movant's favor, identifying those facts in affidavits, deposition transcripts, or incorporated exhibits. Adler, 144 F.3d at 671. The party cannot rest on ignorance of the facts, speculation, or unsubstantiated conclusory allegations. Harvey Barnett, Inc. v. Shidler, 338 F.3d 1125, 1136 (10th Cir. 2003). “A fact is ‘disputed' in a summary-judgment proceeding only if there is contrary evidence or other sufficient reason to disbelieve it; a simple denial, much less an assertion of ignorance, does not suffice.” Grynberg v. Total S.A., 538 F.3d 1336, 1345 (10th Cir. 2008).

         III. Freedom of Information Act

         Congress enacted FOIA as a means “to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny.” Dep't of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976). As the United States Supreme Court has “consistently recognized, the basic objective of the Act is disclosure.” Chrysler Corp. v. Brown, 441 U.S. 281, 290 (1979). At the same time, the statute represents a “balance [of] the public's interest in governmental transparency against legitimate governmental and private interests that could be harmed by release of certain types of information.” United Techs. Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Def., ...


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