CALYPSO CARGO LIMITED et al v. UNITED STATES COAST GUARD
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Emmet G. Sullivan on March 23, 2012. (lcegs6)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
CALYPSO CARGO LIMITED & CARIB
UNITED STATES COAST GUARD,
) Civil Action No. 10-2125 (EGS)
Plaintiffs, owners and charterers of the ship Havnor,
brought this action under the Freedom of Information Act
(“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552, et seq., seeking records regarding the
detention of their ship by defendant, the United States Coast
After receiving the requested records, plaintiffs agreed
to dismiss this action voluntarily on April 20, 2011.
before the Court is plaintiffs’ motion for attorneys’ fees.
Upon consideration of the motion, the memorandum in opposition
and the notice of supplemental authority thereto, the relevant
case law, the entire record in this case, and for the reasons
stated below, the Court hereby DENIES plaintiffs’ motion for
On or about May 1, 2010, the ship Havnor was en route to
the Dominican Republic, when it was followed and subsequently
stopped by the United States Coast Guard.
Compl. ¶ 8.
Coast Guard redirected the ship to Puerto Rico, where the ship’s
cargo tanks were searched.
Plaintiffs allege that, due to
the actions of the Coast Guard, plaintiffs suffered a major
Thereafter, on May 10, 2010, plaintiffs
filed with the Coast Guard a FOIA request seeking all records
related to the detention of the ship and its crew.
Id. ¶ 9.
a letter dated June 8, 2010, the Coast Guard acknowledged
receipt of plaintiffs’ FOIA request.
Id. ¶ 10.
On August 17,
2010, plaintiffs filed an appeal with the Coast Guard for
failing to provide the requested records.
Id. ¶ 11.
Guard acknowledged receipt of plaintiffs’ FOIA requests and
appeals in an email of August 23, 2010.
Id. ¶ 12.
15, 2010, the Coast Guard informed plaintiffs that their FOIA
request had been referred to the Coast Guard’s San Juan Sector
for a response.
Id. ¶ 14.
Plaintiffs filed their complaint in this action on December
Subsequent to the filing of the complaint, the Coast
Guard produced 150 pages of documents, and subsequently, an
additional 1,125 pages of documents.
Pls.’ Mem. of Law in Supp.
of Mot. for Attorney Fees (“Pls.’ Mem.”) at 3.
plaintiffs received all of the requested records, they agreed to
dismiss this litigation voluntarily on April 20, 2011.
Stipulation of Dismissal, Docket No. 9.
Plaintiffs filed a
motion for attorneys’ fees on June 20, 2011.
That motion is now
ripe for determination by the Court.
FOIA provides that a court “may assess against the United
States reasonable attorney fees and other litigation costs
reasonably incurred in any case . . . in which the complainant
has substantially prevailed.”
5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(i).
determining whether an award of attorneys’ fees is appropriate,
the court employs a two-step inquiry.
First, the court must
determine whether the plaintiff is “eligible” for attorneys’
fees, i.e. whether the plaintiff has “substantially prevailed”
on his FOIA claim.
Brayton v. Office of the U.S. Trade
Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 524 (D.C. Cir. 2011); see also
Weisberg v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, 745 F.2d 1476, 1495 (D.C.
A party may “substantially prevail” by either
obtaining relief through “a judicial order, or an enforceable
written agreement or consent decree,” 5 U.S.C. §
552(a)(4)(E)(ii)(I), or by eliciting a “voluntary or unilateral
change in position by the agency, if the complainant’s claim is
not insubstantial,” id. § 552(a)(4)(E)(ii)(II).1
Once the court determines that the plaintiff has
substantially prevailed, it must then, in the exercise of its
discretion, determine whether the plaintiff is “entitled” to
See Weisberg, 745 F.2d at 1495, 1498.
making that determination, the court analyzes four factors:
(1) the benefit of the release to the public; (2) the commercial
Prior to 2001, the D.C. Circuit construed fee eligibility
under the “catalyst theory,” pursuant to which, a plaintiff
“‘substantially prevailed’ not only when he obtained an official
disclosure order from a court, but also when he substantially
caused the government to release the requested documents before
final judgment.” Brayton, 641 F.3d at 524-25 (citing Summers v.
Dep’t of Justice, 569 F.3d 500, 502 (D.C. Cir. 2009)). In 2001,
the Supreme Court explicitly rejected the catalyst theory,
holding that plaintiffs were only eligible for attorney fees if
they were “awarded some relief by [a] court.” Buckhannon Bd. &
Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dep’t of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S.
598, 603 (2001). The D.C. Circuit confirmed that the Buckhannon
standard applied to FOIA cases in Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers
International Union, AFL-CIO v. Department of Energy, 288 F.3d
452, 456-57 (D.C. Cir. 2002). However, in 2007, Congress
enacted the OPEN Government Act, which abrogated the Buckhannon
rule in the FOIA context and revived the possibility of FOIA fee
awards in the absence of a court decree. See OPEN Government
Act of 2007, Pub. L. No. 110-175, 121 Stat. 2524 (2007). As the
D.C. Circuit has recently made clear, “[t]he purpose and effect
of [the OPEN Government Act] . . . was to change the
‘eligibility’ prong back to its pre-Buckhannon form.” Brayton,
641 F.3d at 525; see also N.Y.C. Apparel F.Z.E. v. U.S. Customs
& Border Prot. Bureau, 563 F. Supp. 2d 217, 221 (D.D.C. 2008)
(“[T]he language found in [5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(ii)(II)] of
the amended provision, essentially codifies the so-called
‘catalyst theory’ for determining a fee request against the
United States, under which a plaintiff is deemed to have
‘substantially prevailed’ for purposes of § 552(a)(4)(E) if the
litigation substantially caused the requested records to be
released.” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).
benefit of the release to the plaintiff; (3) the nature of the
plaintiff’s interest in the records; and (4) the reasonableness
of the agency’s withholding.
See id. at 1498; see also Davy v.
CIA, 550 F.3d 1155, 1159 (D.C. Cir. 2008); Tax Analysts v. U.S.
Dep’t of Justice, 965 F.2d 1092, 1093 (D.C. Cir. 1992).
factor is dispositive,” Davy, 550 F.3d at 1159, and entitlement
is “a matter of district court discretion,” Tax Analysts, 965
F.2d at 1094.
Plaintiffs argue that they are eligible for attorneys’ fees
because this litigation was the catalyst for the release of the
See Pls.’ Mem. at 4-6.
defendant contends that the reason for the Coast Guard’s delay
in releasing the records was “the product of a consistent and
reasonably diligent process,” which was unrelated to plaintiffs’
initiation of this action.
Def.’s Opp’n at 6-7.
As noted above, the key question under the “catalyst
theory” is whether “the institution and prosecution of the
litigation cause[d] the agency to release the documents obtained
during the pendency of the litigation[.]”
Church of Scientology
of Cal. v. Harris, 653 F.2d 584, 587 (D.C. Cir. 1981).
words, plaintiffs must show that “prosecution of the action
could reasonably be regarded as necessary to obtain the
information, and that a causal nexus exists between the action
and the agency’s surrender of that information.”
Id. at 588
(internal citations omitted); see also Short v. U.S. Army Corps
of Eng’rs, 613 F. Supp. 2d 103, 106 (D.D.C. 2009).
agency cannot prevent an award of attorneys’ fees simply by
releasing the requested information before the plaintiff obtains
a court order, “the mere filing of the complaint and the
subsequent release of the documents is insufficient to establish
Weisberg, 745 F.2d at 1496.
Something more than
“post hoc, ergo propter hoc must be shown.”
Public Law Educ.
Inst. v. Dep’t of Justice, 744 F.2d 181, 183 (D.C. Cir. 1984).
If, rather than the threat of an adverse court order, “an
unavoidable delay accompanied by due diligence in the
administrative process was the actual reason for the agency’s
failure to respond to a request, then it cannot be said that the
complainant substantially prevailed in [its] suit.”
Scientology, 653 F.2d at 588 (internal citations omitted); see
also Short, 613 F. Supp. 2d at 106 (“The causation requirement
is missing when disclosure results not from the suit but from
delayed administrative processing.”).
According to defendant, shortly after receiving plaintiffs’
FOIA request, the Coast Guard’s Data Administration and FOIA
Division (“DAFD”) began processing the request.
Opp’n at 2.
Defendant asserts that DAFD searched for and
compiled responsive records between May 2010 and July 2010.
id. (citing Supplemental Declaration of Dawn Patterson
(“Patterson Decl.”), Ex. 1, at ¶ 5).
plaintiffs’ consent to redact personal information, DAFD was
prepared to release the documents, but it determined that
certain documents contained potentially sensitive law
enforcement information and needed to be reviewed by the legal
Id. (citing Patterson Decl. at ¶¶ 5-6).
DAFD sent the
responsive documents to the legal office on August 24, 2010.
Patterson Decl. at ¶ 7.
After reviewing the documents, a legal
officer returned the documents to DAFD for corrections on
February 14, 2011.
On March 3, 2011, once corrections and
a final review had been concluded, the documents were provided
to plaintiffs in full, with the exception of redactions for
at ¶ 7).
Def.’s Opp’n at 2 (citing Patterson Decl.
During this same time, the Coast Guard’s Seventh
District Legal Office (“D7”) was also in the process of
searching for and compiling responsive documents.
the volume of the records [1,125 pages], considerable time was
needed” to complete the review.
Id. at 3 (citing Supplemental
Declaration of LT Anna E. Steel (“Steel Decl.”), Ex. 2, at ¶ 7).
Defendant asserts that D7 compiled and reviewed the records
“without knowledge of Plaintiffs’ December 15, 2010 complaint,
and on May 25, 2011 released all 1,125 pages of responsive
records to Plaintiffs.”
Id. (citing Steel Decl. at ¶¶ 8-9).
Defendant has provided a detailed timeline of events
leading up to the release of the requested records.
timeline makes clear, multiple divisions within the Coast Guard
had already begun coordinating and processing the plaintiffs’
request before plaintiffs filed their lawsuit in December 2010.
Similarly, in Bigwood v. Defense Intelligence Agency, the court
was persuaded by the fact that defendant had expended
considerable time and effort processing the plaintiff’s request
prior to the filing of his lawsuit.
321 (D.D.C. 2011).
See 770 F. Supp. 2d 315,
There, even though the agency’s processing
of the plaintiff’s FOIA request was “extraordinarily delayed,”
because the defendant agency had conducted multiple searches and
several rounds of document review prior to the commencement of
the suit, the court concluded that plaintiff could not establish
a causal nexus between the filing of his complaint and the
defendant’s release of documents.
Id.; see also Alliance for
Responsible CFC Policy, Inc. v. Costle, 631 F. Supp. 1469, 1470
(D.D.C. 1986) (explaining that because the plaintiff’s FOIA
request was “undeniably broad and required searches by several
departments within the [agency,] . . . the [agency’s] failure to
disclose in timely fashion appears to be an unavoidable delay
accompanied by due diligence in the administrative processes and
not the result of agency intransigence” (internal quotation
marks omitted)); Lovell v. Dep’t of Justice, 589 F. Supp. 150,
154 (D.D.C. 1984) (finding that detailed documentation of the
defendant agency’s search revealed that its delay in responding
to the FOIA request was due to “unavoidable delay accompanied by
due diligence in the administrative process,” and that it did
not “ignore” or “negligently fail” to respond to the plaintiff’s
inquiries (citations omitted)).
As the D.C. Circuit has stated, “the causation inquiry must
take into account whether the agency upon actual and reasonable
notice of the request, made a good faith effort to search out
material and to pass on whether it should be disclosed.”
Weisberg, 745 F.2d at 1496 (internal quotation marks and
In Electronic Privacy Information Center v.
Department of Homeland Security, the case upon which plaintiffs
rely in their notice of supplemental authority, the court noted
that the agency “[did] not claim to have conducted any
substantive searches for records prior to the commencement of
811 F. Supp. 2d 216, 233 (D.D.C. 2011).
Therefore, the court concluded that, although the agency alleged
that its failure to disclose was due to “backlog as well as
administrative error,” such “generic statements—without any
evidence demonstrating that a backlog existed or that the agency
performed its due diligence in processing the plaintiff’s FOIA
requests—are insufficient to show that [the agency] experienced
‘unavoidable delay’ despite ‘due diligence in the administrative
Id. (internal citations omitted).
Here, by contrast, the Court is persuaded that defendant
made a good faith effort to search for information and respond
to plaintiffs’ request.
Defendant’s declarations make clear
that the delay in the Coast Guard’s release was not due to
intransigence, but rather was the result of a diligent, ongoing
process that began before the initiation of the instant lawsuit.
Moreover, plaintiffs have provided no evidence to suggest that a
causal nexus exists between the filing of plaintiffs’ action and
the agency’s surrender of information.
circumstances, the Court concludes that plaintiffs have not
“substantially prevailed” and are thus not eligible for
Accordingly, plaintiffs’ motion for attorneys’
fees must be denied.2
Because the Court concludes that plaintiffs are not
“eligible” for attorneys’ fees, the Court need not determine
whether they are separately “entitled” to attorneys’ fees.
However, even if the Court were to analyze the claim for
attorneys’ fees under the four factors set forth above, the
Court would conclude that plaintiffs are also not entitled to
attorneys’ fees. With respect to the first factor, the benefit
of release to the public, plaintiffs have not demonstrated how
the release of records related to the detention of the Havnor
and its crew “add[ed] to the fund of information that citizens
may use in making vital political choices.” Cotton v. Heyman,
63 F.3d 1115, 1120 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (internal citations
omitted). Rather, as plaintiffs concede, the reason for their
FOIA request was to learn why the Coast Guard stopped and
searched their ship. See Pls.’ Mem. at 8. This case plainly
falls under the line of cases involving plaintiffs who seek
For the foregoing reasons, the Court hereby DENIES
plaintiffs’ motion for attorneys’ fees.
An appropriate Order
accompanies this Memorandum Opinion.
Emmet G. Sullivan
United States District Court Judge
March 23, 2012
disclosure for commercial benefit or personal reasons and thus
need no incentive to file suit. See Davy, 550 F.3d at 1159;
Cotton, 63 F.3d at 1120. The second and third factors, the
commercial benefit to plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ interest in the
records, are often considered together. Plaintiffs argue that
they will not receive any commercial benefit from the release of
the records. Pls.’ Mem. at 8-9. “The proper question, however,
is not whether the disclosures resulted in commercial benefit,
but whether the potential for private commercial benefit was
sufficient incentive to encourage [plaintiff] to pursue his FOIA
claim.” Costle, 631 F. Supp. at 1471 (internal citation and
quotation marks omitted). Here, the Court finds that plaintiffs
had a significant personal interest in the information released.
See, e.g., Cotton, 63 F.3d at 1120; Short, 613 F. Supp. 2d at
107 (finding that plaintiff was not entitled to fees on the
ground that his FOIA request was motivated by an interest in the
Army Corps of Engineers’ progress on his petition and was thus
pursued for his own commercial benefit). Finally, the fourth
factor—whether the agency’s opposition to disclosure “had a
reasonable basis in law” —is inapplicable here, where the Coast
Guard was not opposed to disclosure, “recalcitrant in its
opposition . . . or otherwise engaged in obdurate behavior.”
Tax Analysts, 965 F.2d at 1097. Instead, and as discussed
supra, the Court is persuaded that defendant was reasonably
delayed in preparing its production. Therefore, the Court
finds, in its discretion, that plaintiffs are not entitled to
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