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Carter v. United States Department of Agriculture

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, El Dorado Division

September 30, 2016

JESSIE CARTER PLAINTIFF
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, and JENNIFER WEATHERLY, In her official capacity DEFENDANTS

          ORDER

          Susan O. Hickey United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is the Report and Recommendation filed June 20, 2016, by the Honorable Barry A. Bryant, United States Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Arkansas. (ECF No. 5). Plaintiff Jessie Carter has timely filed objections to the Report and Recommendation (ECF No. 6), along with an addendum. (ECF No. 7). The Court finds this matter ripe for consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises from Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests submitted by Plaintiff to the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”). The record shows that Plaintiff submitted a FOIA appeal[1] (“FOIA #2015-00207”) with USDA on June 23, 2015, which was marked as “received” by USDA on July 8, 2015. Plaintiff submitted a second FOIA request (“FOIA #2015-04394”), dated July 2, 2015, which was denied by USDA on August 6, 2015 because the requested information from the National Disqualification List violated the privacy rights of individuals.[2] In March 2016, Plaintiff consulted U.S. Senator John Boozman's office, and was advised to submit a revised version of FOIA #2015-04394 to USDA. Plaintiff did so, rewording certain language in the request and submitting a third FOIA request to USDA (“FOIA #2016-02999”). On March 28, 2016, USDA marked FOIA #2016-02999 as “received.”

         On June 7, 2016, Plaintiff filed a pro se action in this Court. Plaintiff's Complaint requested that USDA be enjoined from withholding requested agency records. On June 20, 2016, Judge Bryant issued a Report and Recommendation, recommending that Plaintiff's Motion for Service (ECF No. 2) be denied and Plaintiff's case be dismissed in its entirety. Judge Bryant's Report and Recommendation stated that Plaintiff has not presented a claim upon which relief may be sought because he has not shown that he has exhausted USDA's FOIA administrative appeals process before initiating this action. Thus, Judge Bryant concluded that the federal judiciary does not have jurisdiction to hear the FOIA dispute, and recommends that Plaintiff's case be dismissed. On July 7, 2016, Plaintiff filed timely objections to Judge Bryant's Report and Recommendation.[3] On July 17, 2016, Plaintiff filed an addendum to his objections.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The FOIA was enacted “to facilitate public access to Government documents.” U.S. Dep't of State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164, 173 (1991) (citation omitted). To obtain access to government records under the FOIA, two requirements must be met: (1) a reasonable description of the records must be made; and (2) the requestor must comply with the agency's published FOIA rules. 5 U.S.C. § 552(3)(A). FOIA requires an agency to determine within 20 days after receiving the request (excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays) whether documents should be provided or withheld, and the reasons therefor. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(i). This same 20-day time limit also applies to determinations on FOIA appeals. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(ii). An agency may, by written notice, obtain an extension of time for unusual circumstances. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(B).

         “If an agency refuses to furnish the requested records, the requester may file suit in federal court and obtain an injunction ‘order[ing] the production of any agency records improperly withheld.'” Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880, 885 (2008) (citing 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B)). A requester must exhaust all administrative appeals before filing a FOIA suit in federal court. See Brumley v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 767 F.2d 444, 445 (8th Cir. 1985). However, a requester is considered to have exhausted all administrative remedies if an agency fails to respond to a FOIA request within the time limit provided by 5 U.S.C. § 552. Wilson v. United States, No. CIV 08-5022-RHB, 2009 WL 387086, at *4 (D.S.D. Feb. 11, 2009) (citing 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(C)(i)).

         According to 28 U.S.C. § 646(b)(1), the Court will conduct a de novo review of all issues related to Plaintiff's specific objections. Plaintiff's objections reference FOIA #2015-00207, stating that USDA did not make a determination on the appeal within FOIA's 20-day time limit. Plaintiff also states that USDA did not respond to FOIA #2016-02999 within the 20-day period. Lastly, Plaintiff states that “USDA has failed to respond timely . . . [to] the July 2015 request for appeal # (2015-FNS-04394-F).” (ECF No. 6). Plaintiff concludes his objections by asking the Court to order USDA to release the requested information in its entirety. The Court will now turn its analysis to each of the three FOIA requests at issue in this case and discuss whether Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies for each.

         A. FOIA #2015-00207

         According to evidence provided by Plaintiff, he submitted this FOIA appeal on June 23, 2015. The record does not contain any information concerning the original FOIA request that Plaintiff sought to appeal by submitting FOIA #2015-00207. The appeal was marked “received” on July 8, 2015. On July 14, 2015, this appeal was assigned the tracking number #2015-FNS-00207-A, and Plaintiff was informed that the appeal had a target response date of August 5, 2015. (ECF No. 1). On January 16, 2016, USDA sent Plaintiff an email with the subject title “00207-A, ” which stated that “the matter is currently under review.” (ECF No. 6). As far as the Court can tell, this is the only evidence in the record concerning FOIA #2015-00207.[4]

         Plaintiff argues that USDA failed to make a determination on FOIA #2015-00207 within the 20-day time limit set by law. The Court agrees. USDA received FOIA #2015-00207 on July 8, 2015, and had 20 working days to respond to the appeal. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(ii). The January 19, 2016 email from USDA to Plaintiff, in which USDA stated it was still reviewing the appeal, shows that USDA had not yet made a determination nearly five months after the determination was due. The record contains no evidence to the contrary to show USDA responded within the 20-day time limit or requested an extension of time. Based on the evidence in the record, the Court concludes that Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies with respect to FOIA #2015-00207 because USDA did not respond to the appeal within the 20-day time limit set forth in 5 U.S.C. § 552. Therefore, the Court finds that it was proper for Plaintiff to file a federal action regarding FOIA #2015-00207.

         B. FOIA #2015-04394

         The record shows that Plaintiff submitted FOIA request #2015-04394 to USDA on July 2, 2015. The record does not indicate what day USDA received this request, thus beginning the 20-day response period. On August 6, 2015, USDA responded, denying the request on the basis that it requested information that would invade individuals' ...


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