COMPETITIVE ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE v. UNITED STATES ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
MEMORANDUM AND OPINION. Signed by Judge Rosemary M. Collyer on 2/8/17. (lcrmc3)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Civil Action No. 15-cv-215 (RMC)
UNITED STATES ENVIRONMENTAL )
On August 24, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency filed a motion for
summary judgment urging the Court to dismiss this Freedom of Information Act complaint filed
by the Competitive Enterprise Institute for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. On March
4, 2016, the Court denied summary judgment and requested further briefing from the parties to
determine the timeliness of the suit. After a thorough review of the parties’ supplemental briefs,
the Court will find that administrative remedies have been exhausted. The motion for summary
judgment will nevertheless be granted for the reasons below.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute (the Institute) “is a public policy research
and education institute in Washington, D.C., dedicated to advancing responsible regulation and
in particular economically sustainable environmental policy.” Compl. [Dkt. 1] ¶ 11. The
Institute has previously filed at least seven requests under the Freedom of Information Act, 5
U.S.C. § 522 (FOIA), and four lawsuits seeking records from the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) relating to the use of text-messaging by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. At
issue here is the Institute’s request on May 13, 2014:
“copies of all email or text messages sent to or from anyone in EPA
Headquarters Office of General Counsel that both 1) is either to or
from Gina McCarthy or cites or refers to Gina McCarthy, and
2) cites, mentions, or refers to the words text messaging or text
messages (which also includes reference to such terms as, e.g.,
“texts”, “texting”, “SMS”). That is, all OGC emails and/or texts
that are from, to, cite or refer to Ms. McCarthy, and reference texting
Id. ¶ 25. EPA assigned the request identification number HQ-FOI-2014-006434. Id. ¶ 26.
Following four productions that occurred between June 30, 2014 and December 9, 2014, EPA
produced a total of 1702 pages of responsive material, withheld 380 documents in full, and 384
in part under Exemptions 5 and 6 of FOIA, 5 U.S.C. §§ 522(b)(5) & (6). See Statement of
Undisputed Material Facts [Dkt. 8-2] (Facts) ¶ 5-6. On December 9, 2014, along with the final
set of responsive documents, EPA provided the Institute with a list of records withheld in full
and a final response letter explaining that the Institute could “appeal this response to the National
Freedom of Information Officer, U.S. EPA, FOIA and Privacy Branch, 1200 Pennsylvania
Avenue, N.W. (2822T), Washington, DC 20460 (U.S. Postal Service only), FAX: (202) 5662147, E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.” Facts at ¶ 7; Compl. at ¶ 29. EPA also produced a Vaughn
index1 listing the records withheld in full or part by category. See Vaughn Index [Dkt. 8-8]. The
Institute challenges the EPA’s reliance on Exemption 5 and the use of categories instead of
individual record-by-record entries.
The D.C. Circuit’s decision in Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820 (D.C. Cir. 1973), requires
agencies to prepare an itemized index correlating each withheld document, or portion thereof,
with a specific FOIA exemption and the agency’s nondisclosure justification.
On Thursday, January 8, 2015, the Institute filed an administrative appeal, sent by
electronic mail to email@example.com. See Compl. at ¶ 30. According to EPA, the agency received
the appeal on Monday, January 12, 2015 and on that same day, sent an email to the Institute
acknowledging receipt. See Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. 8] (MSJ) at 5. On February 10, 2015, EPA
notified the Institute that it required an extension of time to process the administrative appeal.
On the following day, February 11, 2015, the Institute filed the current Complaint challenging
EPA’s handling of, and response to, its request.
Agency’s Search for Responsive Records
Upon receipt of the Institute’s May 13, 2014 request, Kevin M. Miller, Assistant
General Counsel for Information and head of the Information Law Practice Group within the
Office of General Counsel (OGC) of EPA, assigned an attorney on his staff to respond to it. See
Miller Decl. [Dkt. 8-3] ¶ 1, 5. EPA searched “any emails to or from OGC staff that contained a
reference to Gina McCarthy and text messaging during the time period July 1, 2012 to the date
the request was processed (which was June 9, 2014).” Id. ¶ 7. On the staff attorney’s
recommendation, EPA specifically searched “the files of any OGC attorney who worked on
matters relating to this subject area during the time frame.” Id. ¶ 8. Seven attorneys were
identified and their files searched using the following terms: “(McCarthy AND text) OR
(McCarthy AND SMS) OR (Gina AND text) OR (Gina AND SMS).” Id. ¶ 9. The term “text”
located documents containing variations of the word, such as “texting” and “texts.”
The staff attorney then reviewed the search results for responsive documents,
excluding documents using the term “text” in a manner unrelated to text messaging. Documents
withheld in part were redacted line by line. Id. ¶ 12, 15. Mr. Miller “reviewed all proposed
redactions and either made changes [himself] to the documents, or provided changes to the
attorney.” Id. ¶ 16. EPA did not locate any responsive text messages. Only three of the seven
attorneys whose files were searched had agency-issued cellphones and none of them had
responsive text messages. Id. ¶ 11.
First Motion for Summary Judgment
On August 24, 2015, EPA filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing, inter
alia, that the Institute failed to exhaust its administrative remedies by filing the present
Complaint before EPA had an opportunity to resolve the appeal. The Institute argued that EPA
failed to respond to its appeal within the twenty-day statutory period and that, therefore,
exhaustion was complete.
On March 4, 2016, this Court issued an Opinion explaining that “[w]hat matters is
the date that the Agency received the appeal” for purposes of determining exhaustion.
Competitive Enter. Inst. v. EPA, 167 F. Supp. 3d 74, 79 (D.D.C. 2016) (RMC). The Court
requested “a more thorough explanation of the information technology involved” because EPA
did “not explain the communication technology at work here, whereby a message emailed to a
public address on a Thursday was somehow not delivered until the following Monday.” Id. at
75, 80. Because there were possible explanations for this time delay, such as “outside
contractors, technical limitations, etc.” the Court denied EPA’s motion for summary judgment
pending further information. Id. at 80.
In response to the Court’s Order, EPA filed a Supplemental Memorandum and
Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment attaching the declaration of Larry F. Gottesman,
Acting Chief of the FOIA and Privacy Branch of Environmental Information. See Supp. MSJ
[Dkt. 15]; Gottesman Decl. [Dkt. 15-1] ¶ 1. Mr. Gottesman explains that the email address
used, firstname.lastname@example.org, is administered by EPA Headquarters Freedom of Information Staff
(Staff) as required by EPA regulations, 40 C.F.R. § 2.104(j). See Gottesman Decl. ¶ 3. The
Staff includes five individuals, three full-time employees and two who work four-day weeks.
See id. The Staff “review incoming U.S. mail and monitor the group email box to process FOIA
requests and appeals submitted to the EPA.” Id. The Staff uses FOIAonline, a web-based shared
service, to manage all administrative appeals. The Staff’s email address is not connected to
FOIAonline. Once a Staff member receives an emailed appeal, he or she begins processing the
appeal by manually entering relevant information into FOIAonline, including the date on which
the Staff member received the emailed appeal. See id. ¶ 4. Once an appeal has been entered into
FOIAonline, the system automatically assigns the case to the OGC for processing and “notifies
the person to whom the appeal is assigned of the date on which the appeal was entered into the
system and the date the appeal determination is due.” Id. ¶ 5.
On Thursday, January 8, 2015, the Institute’s appeal was emailed to the Staff
email address at 8:37 p.m., after close of business, and after the scheduled work hours of the
Staff member on duty to monitor the email inbox. See id. ¶ 7. Ordinarily, the Staff member on
duty the following day would have entered the appeal, however, that person was on leave due to
a serious medical condition. As a result, no Staff member monitored the inbox on Friday,
January 9, 2015. The Staff member on duty on Monday entered the Institute’s appeal into
FOIAonline at 8:58 a.m. on that day, Monday, January 12, 2015. FOIAonline immediately
notified the Institute that the appeal had been received, indicating the date of receipt as January
12, 2015 and the date on which the EPA’s determination was due as February 10, 2015. See id.
Based on the above facts, EPA argues that it was only in “receipt” of the
Institute’s appeal on Monday, January 12, 2015, when the Staff member opened the email and
entered the appeal into FOIAonline. See Supp. MSJ at 5. Thus, EPA argues that it timely
responded to the appeal on February 10, 2015 when it asked for an extension of time. See id.
The Institute argues that the appropriate inquiry in determining the timeliness of EPA’s response
is when did the Agency, and not a particular employee, receive the appeal. See Supp. Opp’n
[Dkt. 16] at 2. The appeal was received by the Agency on January 8, 2015 and, therefore, the
Institute asserts that a response was due by February 6, 2015.
II. LEGAL STANDARDS
FOIA cases are typically and appropriately decided on motions for summary
judgment. Brayton v. U.S. Trade Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011); Moore v.
Bush, 601 F. Supp. 2d 6, 12 (D.D.C. 2009). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that
summary judgment must be granted when “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); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Summary judgment is
properly granted against a party who, after adequate time for discovery, “fails to make a showing
sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that
party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Johnson v. Perez, 823 F.3d 701, 705 (D.C. Cir.
2016) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). In ruling on a motion for
summary judgment, the court must draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party’s favor
and accept the nonmoving party’s evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. A nonmoving
party, however, must establish more than “the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence” in
support of its position. Id. at 252.
FOIA requires federal agencies to release government records to the public upon
request, subject to nine listed exceptions. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b); Wolf v. CIA, 473 F.3d 370, 374
(D.C. Cir. 2007). A defending agency in a FOIA case must show that its search for responsive
records was adequate, that any exemptions claimed actually apply, and that any reasonably
segregable non-exempt parts of records have been disclosed after redaction of exempt
information. See Sanders v. Obama, 729 F. Supp. 2d 148, 154 (D.D.C. 2010), aff’d sub nom.
Sanders v. Dep’t of Justice, Civ. No. 10–5273, 2011 WL 1769099 (D.C. Cir. Apr. 21, 2011). The
adequacy of a search is measured by a standard of reasonableness and depends on the individual
circumstances of each case. Truitt v. Dep’t of State, 897 F.2d 540, 542 (D.C. Cir. 1990). The
question is not whether other responsive records may exist, but whether the search itself was
adequate. Steinberg v. Dep’t of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 551 (D.C. Cir. 1994). A court reviews an
agency’s response to a FOIA request de novo. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).
In this case, the Institute is challenging EPA’s reliance on Exemption 5, which
exempts from disclosure “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters that would not
be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” 5 U.S.C.
552(b)(5). This has been interpreted to protect documents ordinarily privileged in the civil
discovery context and encompasses material protected under the attorney-client, attorney workproduct, and deliberative process privileges. See Judicial Watch, Inc v. Dep’t of Homeland Sec.,
926 F. Supp. 2d 121, 132 (D.D.C. 2013).
Although agencies frequently rely on Vaughn indices, “‘[t]he materials provided
by the agency may take any form so long as they give the reviewing court a reasonable basis to
evaluate the claim of privilege.’” ACLU v. CIA, 710 F.3d 422, 433 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (quoting
Gallant v. NLRB, 26 F.3d 168, 173 (D.C. Cir. 1994)).
This Court has held that “[t]he ‘grouping’ of documents in the Vaughn Index may
be permissible . . . when the withholdings comprise multiple, duplicative records” and “when the
government’s supporting affidavits are ‘sufficiently detailed to allow the district court fairly to
evaluate’ the application of a claimed exemption to distinct categories of documents.” Citizens
for Responsibility & Ethics in Wash. v. Dep’t of Justice, 955 F. Supp. 2d 4, 14 (D.D.C. 2013)
(quoting Gallant v. NLRB, 26 F.3d at 173).
The Institute Properly Exhausted Administrative Remedies
An Agency must “make a determination with respect to any appeal within twenty
days . . . after the receipt of such appeal.” 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(6)(A)(ii). Exhaustion of an
administrative appeal is a prerequisite to seeking judicial relief. See Dettmann v. Dep’t of
Justice, 802 F.2d 1472, 1476 (D.C. Cir. 1986) (“It goes without saying that exhaustion of
remedies is required in FOIA cases.”). However, only “[o]nce the head of the agency has made a
determination on appeal or the twenty-day statutory deadline for the appeal decision has passed”
may an individual seeking documents bring suit in federal district court. Oglesby v. Dep’t of
Army, 920 F.2d 57, 71 (D.C. Cir. 1990), overruled in part on other grounds, 79 F.3d 1172 (D.C.
While EPA acknowledges that the Institute’s email arrived in the Staff group
email inbox on the evening of Thursday, January 8, 2015, it argues that “receipt” should be
interpreted to mean the date on which a Staff member opened the email. See Supp. MSJ at 5. In
its March 4, 2016 Opinion, this Court distinguished the law governing FOIA requests versus
FOIA appeals, explaining that in the context of an appeal the relevant question is “when the
Institute’s appeal was received by EPA.” FOIA requests, on the other hand, may be appealed
within twenty days of receipt by “the appropriate component of the agency.” Competitive Enter.
Inst. v. EPA, 167 F. Supp. 3d at 78-79. EPA clearly received the Institute’s appeal on January 8
and thus failed to respond on a timely basis. The Institute properly exhausted its administrative
remedies before instituting this suit in federal court.
EPA’s Vaughn Index is Adequate
EPA provided a 50-page Vaughn Index detailing withheld and redacted records
and accompanied by the declaration of Kevin M. Miller, the Assistant General Counsel for
Information Law and head of the Information Law Practice Group of the OGC of EPA. See
Vaughn Index [Dkt. 8-8]; Miller Decl. at ¶ 1. Most of the listed records qualified for multiple
privileges under Exemption 5. Of the 380 records withheld in full, 364 were withheld under the
deliberative process privilege, 376 under the attorney-client privilege, and 368 under the attorney
work product privilege. Of the 384 records withheld in part, 375 were withheld under the
deliberative process privilege, 363 under the attorney-client privilege, and 209 under the attorney
work product privilege. Facts ¶ 8-9.
The Vaughn Index divides these records into twenty-eight categories, labelled
“A” to “Z” and “AA” to “BB.” Each category lists the records being withheld, whether each
record was withheld in full or in part, provides a description of each record, explains the reasons
EPA decided the record qualifies for a relevant privilege, and addresses the segregability of
withheld information. Each category consists of a series of email correspondence on a particular
topic. The nature of the correspondence is explained for each category, the offices involved,
and, where appropriate, names of individuals included on the correspondence are identified.
When assessing the sufficiency of a Vaughn index, courts “focus on the functions
of the Vaughn index” rather than its form. Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Food & Drug Admin, 449 F.3d
141, 146 (D.C. Cir. 2006). When an agency has disclosed and withheld or redacted large
numbers of records, “categorization and repetition provide efficient vehicles by which a court
can review withholdings that implicate the same exemption for similar reasons.” Id. at 147.
Under such circumstances, individual record-by-record entries “may actually impede court
review and undermine the functions served by a Vaughn index.” Id.
EPA’s Vaughn Index is not overly generalized, each document is tied to a specific
category and appropriate exemption, and segregability is addressed. See e.g. Center for Auto
Safety v. Dep’t of Treasury, 133 F. Supp. 3d 109, 122 (D.D.C. 2015) (Vaughn index deficient for
failure to identify clearly categories to which each record belonged and address segregability).
The Vaughn Index here provides sufficient information to evaluate EPA’s claim of privilege.
Adequacy of the Search
To rebut a challenge to the adequacy of a search, an agency must show that “the
search was reasonably calculated to discover the requested documents, not whether it actually
uncovered every document extant.” SafeCard Servs., Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197, 1201
(D.C.Cir.1991) (citing Meeropol v. Meese, 790 F.2d 942, 950–51 (D.C. Cir. 1986)). Agencies
are not required to search every record system, but agencies must conduct a good faith,
reasonable search of those systems of records likely to possess the requested records. Oglesby v.
Dep’t of Army, 920 F.2d at 68. An agency may prove the reasonableness of its search by a
declaration by responsible agency officials, so long as the declaration is reasonably detailed and
not controverted by contrary evidence or evidence of bad faith. Military Audit Project v. Casey,
656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Once an agency has provided such affidavits, the burden
shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate the lack of a good faith search. See Maynard v. CIA, 986
F.2d 547, 560 (1st Cir.1993).
The Institute has failed to articulate a specific challenge to EPA’s search for
responsive records. Agency affidavits are accorded a presumption of good faith, which cannot
be rebutted by “purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other
documents.” Ground Saucer Watch, Inc. v. CIA, 692 F.2d 770, 771 (D.C. Cir. 1981). The Miller
Declaration describes a search reasonably calculated to uncover responsive documents and the
Institute provides nothing to challenge the presumption of good faith afforded the declaration.
The Institute complains that EPA improperly redacted information that was not
exempt. EPA contends that the deliberative process, attorney-client, and/or work-product
privileges of FOIA Exemption 5 apply. For the reasons below, the Court holds that EPA
properly withheld documents under Exemption 5.
Exemption 5 provides that FOIA does not apply to “inter-agency or intra-agency
memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in
litigation with the agency.” 5 U.S.C. ' 552(b)(5). Exemption 5 encompasses materials which
would be protected under the attorney-client privilege, the attorney work-product privilege, or
the executive deliberative process privilege. See Formaldehyde Inst. v. Dep=t Health & Human
Servs., 889 F.2d 1118, 1121 (D.C. Cir. 1989); see also NLRB v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 421 U.S.
132, 149 (1975) (Exemption 5 includes all documents “normally privileged in the civil discovery
The attorney-client privilege protects “‘confidential communications between an
attorney and his client relating to a legal matter for which the client has sought professional
advice.’” Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Dep’t of Treasury, 802 F. Supp. 2d 185, 200 (D.D.C. 2011)
(quoting Mead Data Central, Inc. v. Dep’t of Air Force, 566 F.2d 252 (D.C. Cir. 1977)). The
purpose of the privilege is to ensure that a client’s confidences are protected, encouraging clients
to be honest with their attorneys. See Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Dep’t of Homeland Sec., 736 F.
Supp. 2d 202, 209 (D.D.C. 2010). In the context of FOIA, “the agency is the ‘client’ and the
agency’s lawyers are the ‘attorneys’ for the purposes of attorney-client privilege.” Judicial
Watch v. Dep’t of Treasury, 802 F. Supp. 2d at 200.
An attorney’s work product prepared or obtained in anticipation of litigation is
protected from disclosure under the work product doctrine. Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(3); EEOC v.
Lutheran Social Servs., 186 F.3d 959, 968 (D.C. Cir. 1999); In re Grand Jury Proceedings, 5 F.
Supp. 2d 21 (D.D.C. 1998). The party asserting the protection bears the burden of establishing
that the work product doctrine applies. United States v. Constr. Prods. Research, 73 F.3d 464,
473 (2d Cir. 1996). So long as a document was prepared because of the prospect of litigation,
even the factual portions of the document are protected under the work product doctrine. Equal
Rights Ctr. v. Post Properties, Inc., 247 F.R.D. 208, 211 (D.D.C. 2008).
The deliberative process privilege exempts from disclosure documents “reflecting
advisory opinions, recommendations and deliberations comprising part of a process by which
governmental decisions and policies are formulated.” NLRB v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 421 U.S.
at 150. Further, Exemption 5 “covers recommendations, draft documents, proposals,
suggestions, and other subjective documents which reflect the personal opinions of the writer
rather than the policy of the agency.” Coastal States Gas Corp. v. Dep’t of Energy, 617 F.2d
854, 866 (D.C. Cir. 1980). Such documents are protected in order to promote “the quality of
agency decisions by protecting open and frank discussion among those who make them within
the Government.” Dep’t of the Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Ass’n, 532 U.S. 1, 9
(2001); accord Tax Analysts v. IRS, 117 F.3d 607, 617 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (noting that the quality
of decision-making would be seriously undermined if agencies were forced to operate in a “fish
bowl” since open and frank discussion regarding legal or policy matters would be impossible).
1. Communications with Contractor Are Protected Under Exemption 5
The Institute challenges the application of the attorney-client privilege to emails
including a contractor, Tanika Davis, arguing that such records are outside the scope of the
privilege. It further asserts that categories of records that “reflect communications” to agency
lawyers “concerning legal advice” or “seeking legal advice” are overly broad and include records
that merely relate to a privileged communication and are not themselves privileged. Opp’n at
A communication is only protected by the attorney-client privilege if its primary
purpose is either “‘(i) an opinion on law or (ii) legal services or (iii) assistance in some legal
proceeding.’” Muttitt v. Dep’t of State, 926 F. Supp. 2d 284, 308 (D.D.C. 2013) (quoting In re
Grand Jury, 475 F.3d 1299, 1304 (D.C. Cir. 2007)). Exemption 5 applies to “inter-agency or
intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than
an agency in litigation with the agency.” 5 U.S.C. ' 552(b)(5). For FOIA purposes, “intraagency” documents can include communications to or from non-governmental parties, including
contractors. See Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. Dep’t of Homeland Sec., 892 F. Supp. 2d 28, 45
(D.D.C. 2012). The exemption is applied only where “‘the consultant does not represent an
interest of its own, or the interest of any other client, when it advises the agency that hires it.’”
Id. (quoting Klamath, 532 U.S. at 11). In order to be excluded from the consultant exemption, a
contractors’ position must be adverse to that of the government. Id. at 46.
Ms. Davis was hired as an EPA contractor tasked with “locating and providing the
mobile device data and information used to respond to the questions posed by the staff attorneys”
for the purpose of obtaining legal advice for ongoing litigation. Supp. Miller Decl. [Dkt. 10-2]
¶¶ 3-4. In all communications, Ms. Davis “was acting within the scope of the contract and for
the purpose of aiding the EPA in its functions in responding to the client offices and attorneys’
questions.” Id ¶ 4. The Institute’s challenge to the application of the attorney-client privilege to
communications that include Ms. Davis must fail. As described, her communications were intraagency and for the purpose of litigation and are therefore exempt from disclosure.
The Court can find no basis for the Institute’s assertion that the attorney-client
privilege was improperly applied to communications that it claims only relate to a privileged
communication. The challenged categories of documents are communications between attorneys
and staff members for the purpose of developing legal strategy and therefore more than simply
related to a privileged communication. The Supreme Court has made clear that the attorneyclient privilege extends to communications with employees in the lower echelons of an agency
who do not have decision-making power. See Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383, 39296 (1981). To the extent that the Institute challenges communications between attorneys and
such staff members, it errs; those communications fall within the attorney-client privilege.
“The Salama Emails” Are Protected Under Exemption 5
Categories F and G of the Vaughn Index include correspondence between
attorneys at both OGC and DOJ and program staff concerning pending FOIA litigation. The
Institute challenges redactions to a specific set of emails between two non-lawyers, Patricia
Hilton and Joseph Salama. The series of emails was initiated by an OGC attorney requesting
information to be used in responding to a complaint. In responding to the attorney, a FOIA
officer included Ms. Hilton on the correspondence and asked her to provide further information.
Ms. Hilton then forwarded the email to Mr. Salama, without including an attorney on the email,
seeking his assistance in answering the question posed by the FOIA Officer. See Vaughn Index
at 13-14. The Institute challenges the application of the attorney-client privilege to those emails
between Ms. Hilton and Mr. Salama on which no attorney is copied. It also challenges the
general application of the attorney-client privilege to correspondence concerning EPA’s “search
process in response to a FOIA request.” Opp’n at 36.
In Upjohn, the Supreme Court held that the attorney-client privilege applies to
corporations because corporations need to “constantly go to lawyers to find out how to obey the
law.” Upjohn, 449 U.S. at 392. The Court further stated that the attorney-client privilege “exists
to protect not only the giving of professional advice to those who can act on it but also the giving
of information to the lawyer to enable him to give sound and informed advice.” Id. at 390.
Upjohn held that the questionnaires, memoranda and notes of interviews for an internal
investigation conducted by corporate counsel were protected by the attorney-client privilege. Id.
at 386. The D.C. Circuit has extended Upjohn to include notes of interviews of non-attorneys
conducted by non-attorneys because “the investigation . . . was conducted at the discretion of the
attorneys.” In re Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc, 756 F.3d 754, 758 (D.C. Cir. 2014). Similarly, the
challenged emails between Ms. Hilton and Mr. Salama were exchanged at the request of
attorneys and to provide information to attorneys for the purpose of obtaining legal advice.
Under these circumstances, the fact that these particular emails are between two non-attorneys
does not negate protection under the attorney-client privilege.
The Institute also challenges correspondence regarding EPA’s search process,
claiming that such records were generated in the ordinary course of business and were not
prepared for the sole purpose of litigation. See Opp’n at 38. In determining whether
correspondence is prepared for the “primary purpose” of seeking or providing legal advice, and
therefore protected by the attorney-client privilege, the D.C. Circuit has rejected a strict “but for”
test. Id. at 759-60. Instead, courts in this Circuit apply the “primary purpose test” which asks:
“Was obtaining or providing legal advice a primary purpose of the communication, meaning one
of the significant purposes of the communication?” Id. at 760 (emphasis in original). It is clear
that the correspondence in Categories F and G were prepared for the purpose of obtaining legal
advice from counsel on how to respond to FOIA requests and in anticipation of litigation. It is
irrelevant that this may not have been the sole purpose of these communications. The records
were appropriately withheld or redacted under Exemption 5.
3. Records Clarifying FOIA Requests Are Protected Under Exemption 5
The Institute also challenges the redaction of records in Category H of the Vaughn
Index. These records are a series of emails containing a “lengthy discussion among multiple
staff in the Office of Environmental Information [(OEI)] concerning a request from the Office of
Air and Radiation (OAR) to locate detailed text messaging transmission information in response”
to one of the Institute’s earlier FOIA requests. Vaughn Index at 15. The request sought “invoices
or bills” associated with Ms. McCarthy’s cellphone over a period of three years. The terms
“billing” and “invoice” created confusion among staff tasked with responding to the request.
These emails are a discussion among staff members “seeking to clarify the request for
information to determine whether it was actually cost information or text message usage
information that was being requested.” Id. There are a total of twenty-eight emails included in
this correspondence, thirteen emails were released in full, and fifteen emails were redacted under
the deliberative process privilege.
The Institute argues that the records are not protected because the discussion
involves merely the application of legal standards and not the development of agency policy. It
also argues that Exemption 5 should not apply because some of the correspondence includes Ms.
Davis, a contractor.
To qualify for protection under Exemption 5 as deliberative process material, a
document must be “predecisional,” i.e., “generated before the adoption of an agency policy,” and
“deliberative,” i.e., reflecting “the give-and-take of the consultative process.” Public Citizen, Inc.
v. OMB, 598 F.3d 865, 874 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
The deliberative process privilege generally does not cover the purely factual portions of records,
except in cases where the factual material “is so inextricably intertwined with the deliberative
sections of documents that its disclosure would inevitably reveal the government’s
deliberations.” In re Sealed Case, 121 F.3d 729, 737 (D.C. Cir. 1997); Public Citizen, Inc., 598
F.3d at 876 (“[A]gencies must disclose those portions of predecisional and deliberative
documents that contain factual information that does not inevitably reveal the government’s
deliberations.”) (internal quotations omitted).
EPA explains that these documents should be exempt under the deliberative
process privilege because they involve discussion on “opinions relating to options for responding
to plaintiff’s FOIA request,” that they are predecisional because they pre-dated a final response
from EPA, and deliberative because they reflect “analysis and opinions on options that were still
in development” by EPA. Vaughn Index at 16. In addition, “[t]o the extent there are facts in
these records, the selection of those facts [is] an integral part of the process of advising EPA
decisionmakers responding to the FOIA request and related litigation.” Id. The consultative
process described by EPA reflects “the give-and-take” the deliberative process privilege seeks to
protect and involves more than the mere application of legal standards as the Institute suggests.
See e.g., National Security Counselors v. CIA, No. 11-443, 2016 WL 4621060, at *28 (D.D.C.
Sept. 6, 2016) (memoranda requesting coordination on response to FOIA request and with
specific instructions on release of information protected under deliberative process privilege).
The Institute’s reliance on People for the American Way Foundation v. Dep’t of
Education, 516 F. Supp. 2d 28 (D.D.C. 2007), for the proposition that communications with
contractors are not protected is misplaced. See Opp’n at 40. In that case, the contractors fell
outside of a FOIA exemption because they had interests that were independent from the agency
and they were not hired to provide the agency with advice. People for the American Way
Foundation, 516 F. Supp. 2d at 40. For the reasons articulated above, Ms. Davis did not have an
independent interest and was hired for the explicit purpose of providing advice. Her role as a
contractor does not preclude the application of the deliberative process privilege to the records in
4. Public Relations Documents Are Protected Under Exemption 5
The Institute challenges documents in Categories B and C of the Vaughn Index
involving correspondence between attorneys and staff members concerning drafting a public
statement in response to FOIA litigation and a discussion of the “legal risks associated with
different options for the draft statement.” Vaughn Index at 3.
Emails “generated as part of a continuous process of agency decision-making
regarding how to respond to” a press inquiry are protected by the deliberative process privilege.
Judicial Watch v. Dep’t of the Treasury, 796 F. Supp. 2d 13, 31 (D.D.C. 2011). The documents
in Categories B and C were clearly generated as part of a media strategy in response to FOIA
litigation. Furthermore, the correspondence is predecisional in that it pre-dated the release of a
public statement and is deliberative because it involved personal opinions and thoughts of staff
members working to identify the options. In addition, the correspondence is protected by
attorney-client privilege because a primary purposes of the emails was to obtain legal advice
concerning the legal risks of the various options for a public statement. The public relations
documents were therefore appropriately withheld under Exemption 5.
If a record contains information that is exempt from disclosure, any reasonably
segregable information must be released after deleting the exempt portions, unless the
nonexempt portions are inextricably intertwined with exempt portions. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b); see
Trans–Pacific Policing Agreement v. United States Customs Serv., 177 F.3d 1022 (D.C. Cir.
1999). The court errs if it “simply approve[s] the withholding of an entire document without
entering a finding on segregability, or the lack thereof.” Powell v. Bureau of Prisons, 927 F.2d
1239, 1242 n.4 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (quoting Church of Scientology of Cal. v. Dep’t of the Army,
611 F.2d 738, 744 (9th Cir. 1979)). To demonstrate that all reasonably segregable material has
been released, an agency must provide a detailed justification rather than conclusory statements.
Mead Data Cent., Inc. v. Dep’t of the Air Force, 566 F.2d 242, 261 (D.C. Cir. 1977).
The Court has reviewed EPA’s Vaughn Index and Miller Declaration and finds
that they adequately explain that no portions of the records were segregable. See Vaughn Index;
Miller Decl. ¶ 15.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, Dkt. 8,
will be granted. A memorializing Order accompanies this Opinion.
Date: February 8, 2017
ROSEMARY M. COLLYER
United States District Judge
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