CORNUCOPIA INSTITUTE v. AGRICULTURAL MARKETING SERVICE
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Amy Berman Jackson on 01/10/2018. (lcabj3)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Civil Action No. 16-2252 (ABJ)
Plaintiff Cornucopia Institute (“Cornucopia”) has filed a motion for an award of attorneys’
fees and costs pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d) and the Freedom of Information
Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(i). Pl.’s Mot. for Attys.’ Fees & Costs [Dkt. # 14] (Pl.’s
Mot.”). Plaintiff seeks an award of $41,543.65 in attorneys’ fees and $422.08 in costs, for a total
of $41,965.73. Pl.’s Reply in Supp. of Pl.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 17] (“Pl.’s Reply”) at 12–13. Defendant
Agricultural Marketing Service maintains that plaintiff is neither eligible for nor entitled to a fee
award under FOIA, and that the amount plaintiff seeks is unreasonable. Def.’s Opp. to Pl.’s Mot.
[Dkt. # 16] (“Def.’s Opp.”) at 1.
The Court finds that plaintiff is eligible for and entitled to some fee award under FOIA.
But because the portion of “fees-on-fees” work greatly exceeds the time spent on the merits of the
underlying FOIA litigation, and because the litigation over a relatively narrow set of materials was
uncomplicated and quickly resolved, the Court will grant $9,723.75 for attorneys’ fees, $2,000.00
for fees-on-fees, and $422.08 in costs for a total of $12,145.83.
Plaintiff Cornucopia is a non-profit organization with a “strong interest in ensuring the
integrity of our nation’s organic certification process.” Decl. of Will Fantle [Dkt. # 14-3] (“Fantle
Decl.”) ¶ 5. Defendant, Agricultural Marketing Service (“AMS”), is a federal agency within the
United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) that administers the National Organic
Program, which develops national standards for organic agricultural products. Def.’s Opp. at 1.
On April 4, 2016, USDA announced five vacancies on the National Organic Standards
Board (“Board”), a 15-member board that advises the Secretary of Agriculture on organic policy
and standards. Fantle Decl. ¶ 10. AMS oversees the Board. On June 10, 2016, plaintiff sent a
FOIA request to AMS for “all applications submitted for vacancies open on the National Organic
Standards Board (NOSB) as announced on April 4, 2016 by the USDA.” Ex. 7 to Fantle Decl.
[Dkt. # 14-3] (“FOIA Request”).
Defendant replied on July 11, 2016, that it had identified 671 pages of responsive records
but that “all of these documents [were] being withheld in their entirety pursuant to FOIA
Exemptions (b)(5) and (b)(6).” Ex. 8 to Fantle Decl. [Dkt. # 14-3] (“Initial Response”). The
agency explained that Exemption (b)(5) protects “pre-decisional and/or deliberative” records
which are “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by
law to a party other than in litigation with the agency.” Id., quoting 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5). Because
“the requested applications [were] still under review within USDA,” defendant argued that
Exemption (b)(5) was applicable. Id. The agency also asserted that the information was protected
under Exemption (b)(6) because the requested applications contained information similar to
personnel information, and disclosure “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of
personal privacy.” Id., 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6).
Plaintiff administratively appealed the agency’s decision on August 3, 2016, arguing that
“the USDA AMS [had] improperly applied FOIA exemptions (b)(5) and (b)(6) in an overly broad
manner” in violation of “FOIA’s express segregability requirement.” Ex. 1 to Decl. of Gregory
Bridges [Dkt. # 16–2] (“Pl.’s Admin. Appeal”). On September 2, 2016, the agency denied
plaintiff’s appeal, affirming its use of Exemption (b)(5) and (b)(6) and re-stating that the
“requested applications [were] still under review within USDA.” Ex. 9 to Fantle Decl. [Dkt. # 143] (“Final Response”).
On November 14, 2016, plaintiff filed a complaint with this Court seeking declaratory and
injunctive relief in order to obtain the records. Compl. [Dkt. # 1]. Two days later, on November
16, 2016, the USDA issued a press release officially announcing the appointments of five new
members to the Board. Ex. 2 to Decl. of Gregory Bridges [Dkt. # 16-3] (“USDA press release”).
After discussions between the parties, defendant concluded on December 16, 2016, that
“Exemption 5 was no longer applicable” because the recent appointments marked the end of its
application process, and it provided plaintiff with the responsive records. Def.’s Opp. at 3; Ex. 10
to Fantle Decl. [Dkt. # 14-3] (“Letter Releasing Records”). Of the 671 pages produced, 407 pages
contained redactions of personal information (i.e. “social security numbers, personal email
addresses, residential mailing addresses . . . telephone numbers, birth dates, places of birth, and
other personal information which pertains to an applicant’s personal finances, criminal history,
race, and ethnicity”) pursuant to Exemption 6. Id. The remaining 264 pages were released in full.
Id. With respect to the five applicants appointed to the Board, the agency decided to partially
waive Exemption 6 in order to release additional personal information regarding their outside
income and judgments against them, because it concluded that the “public interest in certain
components of their applications outweighed their privacy interest . . . .” Id.
After the initial December 16 production, the parties continued to have discussions over
the release of any remaining responsive documents. On March 6, 2017, defendant decided to
release additional information. Ex. 11 to Fantle Decl. [Dkt. # 14-3] (“Letter Releasing More
Records”). Specifically, the agency reversed its position on Exemption 6 and agreed to unredact
the state of residence for each applicant. Id. Then on March 9, 2017, defendant provided plaintiff
with “several pages” of responsive records it had inadvertently omitted. Def.’s Opp. at 3. And on
March 29, 2017, at plaintiff’s request, defendant corrected a redaction error on one previously
produced page. Decl. of C. Peter Sorenson [Dkt. # 14-4] (“Sorenson Decl.”) ¶ 13.
The parties notified the Court on April 12, 2017, that “the release of responsive records
[had] been completed” and requested a stay until May 12, 2017, “to complete their discussion
regarding reasonable fees and costs.” Joint Mot. to Stay [Dkt. # 8] (“Mot. to Stay”). There was
no briefing in this case following plaintiff’s complaint due to the willingness of the parties to
resolve the FOIA dispute among themselves.
On June 14, 2017, the case was referred to a Magistrate Judge to conduct mediation
concerning attorneys’ fees and costs. The parties were unable to reach an agreement, so on August
18, 2017, plaintiff filed the pending motion for attorneys’ fees. Pl.’s Mot. Defendant filed its
response on September 20, 2017, Def.’s Opp., and plaintiff filed its reply on October 16, 2017.
Courts “may assess against the United States reasonable and other litigation costs
reasonably incurred” in any FOIA case where “the complainant has substantially prevailed.”
5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(i). In order to recover fees and costs, a FOIA plaintiff must show first
that it is eligible, and second, that it is entitled to such an award. Brayton v. Office of the U.S.
Trade Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 524 (D.C. Cir. 2011), citing Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t
of Commerce, 470 F.3d 363, 368–69 (D.C. Cir. 2006). Under the eligibility prong, a court “asks
whether a plaintiff has substantially prevailed and thus may receive fees.” Id. To substantially
prevail, the complainant must show that it has “obtained relief” through either a judicial order or
“a voluntary or unilateral change in position by the agency, if the complainant’s claim is not
insubstantial.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(ii); see also Brayton, 641 F.3d at 525 (“[T]he OPEN
Government Act of 2007 . . . revived the possibility of FOIA fee awards in the absence of a court
If the requester is eligible for a fee award, the Court “proceeds to the entitlement prong and
considers a variety of factors to determine whether the plaintiff should receive fees.” Brayton, 641
F.3d at 524, citing Judicial Watch, 470 F.3d at 369 (emphasis in original). A court must consider
a number of factors in determining entitlement: “1) the public benefit derived from the case; 2)
the commercial benefit to the requester; 3) the nature of the requester’s interest in the information,
and 4) the reasonableness of the agency’s conduct.” Morley v. CIA, 719 F.3d 689, 690 (D.C. Cir.
2013). “No one factor is dispositive,” Davy v. CIA, 550 F.3d 1155, 1159 (D.C. Cir. 2008), but
“the rule remains that if the government was ‘correct as a matter of law’ to refuse a FOIA request,
‘that will be dispositive.’” Brayton, 641 F.3d at 525, quoting Davy, 550 F.3d at 1162.
Plaintiff is eligible for attorneys’ fees.
A plaintiff has “substantially prevailed” in a FOIA action, and becomes eligible for a fee
award under the statute, if it “obtained relief through either – (I) a judicial order, or an enforceable
written agreement or consent decree; or (II) a voluntary or unilateral change in position by the
agency, if the complainant’s claim is not insubstantial.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(ii). Plaintiff
claims eligibility under subsection (II), on the grounds that its lawsuit caused defendant to change
its position twice and to release responsive records that were previously denied in the
administrative appeal. Pl.’s Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Pl.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 14-6] (“Pl.’s Mem.”)
“The D.C. Circuit has long employed a ‘catalyst theory,’ which evaluates whether a
plaintiff has substantially prevailed based on whether he or she ‘substantially caused the
government to release the requested documents before the final judgment.’” Dorsen v. SEC, 15 F.
Supp. 3d 112, 118 (D.D.C. 2014), quoting Brayton, 641 F.3d at 524–25; see Weisberg v. DOJ, 745
F.2d 1476, 1496 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (“It is well established in this circuit that this inquiry is largely
a question of causation.”). Ultimately, plaintiff has the burden of proving “a causal nexus exists
between” its suit and “the agency’s surrender of that information.” Weisberg, 745 F.2d at 1496,
quoting Cox v. DOJ, 601 F.2d 1, 6 (D.C. Cir. 1979); see also Pub. Citizen Health Research Grp.
v. Young, 909 F.2d 546, 550 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (“[C]laimant must show that it is more probable than
not that the government would not have performed the desired act absent the lawsuit.”). Thus, it
follows that “[w]hen disclosure is triggered by events unrelated to the pending lawsuit, the causal
nexus is missing and the plaintiff cannot be deemed a ‘prevailing party.’” Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr.
v. U.S. Dep’t of Homeland Sec., 218 F. Supp. 3d 27, 41 (D.D.C. 2016), quoting Citizens for
Responsibility & Ethics in Wash. v. DOJ, 83 F. Supp. 3d 297, 303 (D.D.C. 2015), overruled on
other grounds by Nat’l Sec. Counselors v. CIA, 811 F.3d 22, 29 (D.C. Cir. 2016).
Here, defendant claims that the causation requirement is not met because it was the Board
appointments, and not the lawsuit, that served as the catalyst for the release of the bulk of the
records. Def.’s Opp. at 7. The agency argues that once the appointments were announced on
November 16, 2016, it concluded that Exemption 5 pertaining to pre-decisional and deliberative
records no longer applied, and consequently it released 671 responsive pages a month later, on
December 16, 2016. Id. at 3, 7–8.
This is a close question. It is clear that the change in circumstances played some role in
the agency’s change of position. But it is also true that the change came shortly after plaintiff filed
its lawsuit, and while communications between the parties were underway. See Def.’s Opp. at 3.
Therefore, while it cannot be said that the filing of the lawsuit was the sole basis for the agency’s
change in position, there was a substantial causal connection.
Moreover, the abandonment of Exemption 5 was not the only change. The agency agreed
to partially waive Exemption 6 as to the five appointees’ personal information on “outside income
and judgments” because it found that the “public interest in certain components of their
applications outweighed their privacy interest in the information.” Letter Releasing Records. To
the extent that the lawsuit gave voice to the public’s interest in this information, the Court finds
that it played a role in the agency’s decision to disclose that information.
Finally, defendant acknowledges that the lawsuit played a role when it stated that it made
its second revised production on March 6, 2017, “in an effort to resolve the lawsuit.” Def.’s Opp.
Defendant characterizes the second revised production as “insubstantial” under
5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(ii): a “singular decision to release the state of residence of applicants”
constituting “nothing more than a minor adjustment to a redacted set of material.” Id. But the
Court is not relying on these additional limited disclosures alone for its determination. In any
event, the geographic makeup of the applicant pool is not entirely insignificant, and plaintiff claims
that the records it obtained allegedly revealed a “geographic bias.” Pl.’s Mem. at 8. Also, on
March 9, 2017, after months of negotiations, defendant produced “several” additional pages that
it had inadvertently missed in its prior searches. Def.’s Opp. at 3.
Based on all of those circumstances, the Court finds that the lawsuit did in fact prompt the
release of responsive records. Accordingly, the Court finds that the plaintiff substantially prevailed
in this case and is therefore eligible for an award of attorneys’ fees.
Plaintiff is entitled to attorneys’ fees.
If a plaintiff is “eligible” for a fee award, the court next determines whether the plaintiff
also is “entitled” to an award. Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Wash. v. U.S. Dep’t of
Justice, 820 F. Supp. 2d 39, 45 (D.D.C. 2011). In evaluating this issue, courts consider four
factors: “1) the public benefit derived from the case; 2) the commercial benefit to the requester;
3) the nature of the requester’s interest in the information, and 4) the reasonableness of the
agency’s conduct.” Morley, 719 F.3d at 690. None of the factors are dispositive, although “the
court will not assess fees when the agency has demonstrated that it had a lawful right to withhold
disclosure.” Davy, 550 F.3d at 1159.
To assess the public benefit derived from the case, the Court must consider “both the effect
of the litigation for which fees are requested and the potential public value of the information
sought.” Id. The public benefit factor weighs in favor of granting attorneys’ fees “where the
complainant’s victory is likely to add 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), quoting Fenster
v. Brown, 617 F.2d 740, 744 (D.C. Cir. 1979).
As already discussed, the litigation spurred the agency to produce responsive records. And
as to the “potential public value” of the information the Court agrees with plaintiff that the
documents add to the public knowledge, albeit to a limited degree. While there is a genuine public
interest in monitoring the nation’s administration and enforcement of organic standards in
agricultural products, plaintiff’s FOIA request is somewhat indirectly related since it narrowly
sought the information of applicants to the National Organic Standards Board as announced in
April 2016. Nonetheless, the Court agrees that the “the backgrounds of persons appointed to the
NOSB, as well as persons who sought appointment to the NOSB,” a 15-member board that advises
the Secretary of Agriculture on organic policy and standards, is relevant to the broader goal of
monitoring the administration and enforcement of organic standards. Fantle Decl. ¶¶ 23–24.
Accordingly, the Court finds that this first prong favors plaintiff.
The second and third factors – the commercial benefit of the request and plaintiff’s interest
– are “often considered together.” Tax Analysts v. DOJ, 965 F.2d 1092, 1095 (D.C. Cir. 1992),
superseded by statute on other grounds. These factors weigh against an award where the plaintiff
“seeks disclosure for a commercial benefit or out of other personal motives.” Id. The factors tend
to “favor non-profit organizations . . . which ‘aim to ferret out and make public worthwhile,
previously unknown government information – precisely the activity that FOIA’s fees provision
seeks to promote.’” Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. U.S. Dep’t of Homeland Sec., 999 F. Supp. 2d 61,
69 (D.D.C. 2013), quoting Davy, 550 F.3d at 1160.
Plaintiff is a non-profit public interest organization, Compl. ¶ 4, that sought documents
from defendant “for public informational purposes” only and did not derive a commercial benefit.
Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr., 999 F. Supp. 2d at 69, quoting Davy, 550 F.3d at 1160. Plaintiff asserts
that it plans to the use the information by “summarizing it, posting it on [their] website, and sharing
it with [their] members, the organic community at large and the media.” Fantle Decl. ¶ 24. Thus,
the Court finds that the second and third factors favor plaintiff.
See, e.g., Citizens for
Responsibility & Ethics in Wash., 820 F. Supp. 2d at 45 (ruling that a non-profit plaintiff that
“gathers information of potential interest to a segment of the public, uses [its] editorial skills to
turn the raw materials into a distinct work, and distributes that work to an audience” is “among
those whom Congress intended to be favorably treaded under FOIA’s fee provision”) (alteration
in original), quoting Davy, 550 F.3d at 1161–62.
Finally, under the fourth factor, the Court assesses “whether the agency’s opposition to
disclosure had a reasonable basis in law” and “whether the agency . . . [was] recalcitrant in its
opposition to a valid claim or otherwise engaged in obdurate behavior.” Davy, 550 F.3d at 1162
(citations and quotations omitted). The government’s decision to withhold information may have
a reasonable basis in law even if the information was ultimately not found to be exempt. See
Negley v. FBI., 818 F. Supp. 2d 69, 76 (D.D.C. 2011), citing Fenster, 617 F.2d at 744. If the
government’s withholding is correct as a matter of law, there are no grounds on which to award
fees. Davy, 550 F.3d at 1162. However, if the government’s withholding of documents is
“founded on a colorable basis in law, that will be weighed along with other relevant considerations
in the entitlement calculus.” Id., quoting Chesapeake Bay Found., Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t of Agric., 11
F.3d 211, 216 (D.C. Cir. 1993).
Here, defendant initially declined to release any information related to plaintiff’s FOIA
request because it claimed the information was protected under Exemption 5, since the applications
were still under review at the time of the FOIA request, and under Exemption 6, because the
applications contained personal information. See Initial Response; Final Response. This position
certainly had a “colorable basis in law” and there is no evidence that the agency was recalcitrant
or acted in bad faith. Indeed, the agency was able to resolve this request without the need for any
legal briefing following plaintiff’s complaint. Accordingly, because defendant’s decision to
initially withhold the records had a “reasonable basis in law,” the fourth factor weighs in
In sum, because three out of the four factors favor plaintiff, the Court finds that plaintiff is
entitled to recover attorneys’ fees.
Plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees are unreasonable.
Upon determining that a plaintiff is both eligible for and entitled to a FOIA fee award, the
5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(i) (providing for “reasonable attorney fees and other litigation costs”)
Plaintiff calculated its fee application using the Laffey rates.1 Sorenson Decl. ¶¶ 9–10. It
asks this Court to award fees for litigation costs, which it itemizes as $422.08 in costs, $30,708.65
in attorneys’ fees for “preparation of complaint through Plaintiff’s Motion for Attorney’s Fees and
Costs,” and $10,835.00 for “fees on fees preparation of the Reply and accompanying documents”
for a total of $41,965.73. Suppl. Decl. of C. Peter Sorenson [Dkt. # 17-1] (“Sorenson Suppl.
Decl.”) ¶ 8; see also Pl.’s Reply at 12–13. But this is a somewhat inaccurate effort to differentiate
time spent on the merits from time spent recovering fees because the $30,000 plaintiff lists in the
first category includes the hours expended drafting the fee petition. “While it is settled in this
circuit that hours reasonably devoted to a request for fees are compensable, fees on fees must be
reasonable, and not excessive.” Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. FBI, 80 F. Supp. 3d 149, 162 (D.D.C.
2015) (internal citations and edits omitted). This means the Court must “scrutinize” fees-on-fees
Attorneys’ fees and costs are usually calculated by multiplying “the number of hours
reasonably expended . . . by a reasonable hourly rate.” Nat’l Ass’n of Concerned Veterans v. Sec’y
of Def., 675 F.2d 1319, 1323 (D.C. Cir. 1982). But in the case of public-interest lawyers, who do
not have customary billing rates, courts in this Circuit frequently use the “Laffey Matrix” first set
forth in Laffey v. Nw. Airlines, Inc., 572 F. Supp. 354 (D.D.C. 1983), rev’d on other grounds, 746
F.2d 4 (D.C. Cir. 1984). The Laffey Matrix is a schedule of fees based on years of attorney
experience. Salazar ex rel. Salazar v. Dist. of Columbia, 809 F.3d 58, 62 (D.C. Cir. 2015).
petitions “to insure that the total . . . does not represent a windfall for the attorneys.” Id., citing
Boehner v. McDermott, 541 F. Supp. 2d 310, 325 (D.D.C. 2008).
Here, the Court finds that the total fee request is unreasonable because an undue portion of
it derives from time billed for litigating and mediating the amount of attorneys’ fees, rather than
the merits of the underlying FOIA action.2 Furthermore, the merits themselves were resolved
quickly in a straightforward manner, with no need for additional briefing, and, as noted above, the
change in circumstances also played a role in the agency’s decision to release the material.
On April 12, 2017, the parties moved to stay the case because “the release of responsive
records [had] been completed” and they informed the Court that all that remained to be resolved
was the issue of attorneys’ fees. Mot. to Stay. After April 12, 2017, plaintiff billed $29,000.10
for its work on fee matters alone. See Ex. 2 to Sorenson Decl. [Dkt. # 14-4] (“Time Records”) at
lines 70–149; see also Ex. A to Sorenson Suppl. Decl. [Dkt. # 17-1] (“Suppl. Time Records”).
This amount accounts for approximately 70% of the total fee request. Moreover, defendant argues
that much of the time plaintiff billed was unnecessary and redundant, pointing to such line items
as time spent drafting an unsuccessful settlement agreement and numerous duplicative consultation
emails and telephone calls. Def.’s Opp. at 12.
Plaintiff did not provide the Court with a figure totaling its fees-on-fees request. In its
reply brief in support of its motion, plaintiff indicates that a $10,835.00 amount relates to
“additional fees-on-fees for time spent preparing [its] Reply” but it did not indicate how much of
the prior $30,708.65 bill should also be attributed to fees-on-fees work. Pl.’s Reply at 12–13
(emphasis added). Because plaintiff’s entries after April 12, 2017, relate to its efforts to obtain
attorneys’ fees through mediation and litigation, the Court will treat them as part of plaintiff’s
requested fees-on-fees award in the amount of $29,000.10. See Ex. 2 to Sorenson Decl. [Dkt. # 144] (“Time Records”) at lines 70–149; Ex. A to Sorenson Suppl. Decl. [Dkt. # 17-1] (“Suppl. Time
Records”); see, e.g., Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. FBI, 80 F. Supp. 3d at 161–62 (ruling that legal
work billed after the underlying FOIA request was completed should be treated as plaintiff’s
requested fees-on-fees award).
The Court finds that granting plaintiff a $29,000.00 fees-on-fees award would constitute
an unsupportable windfall. See, e.g., Baylor v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Assocs., P.C., 857 F.3d 939,
959 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (noting that fee petition was excessive in part because time spent on fee
litigation “easily exceeded” work on the underlying claim). Rather than perform an “item-by-item
accounting” which is not required, Copeland v. Marshall, 641 F.2d 880, 903 (D.C. Cir. 1980), the
Court will reduce the fees-on-fees component of the fee award to $2,000.00.
Turning to the time billed for the merits, the Court finds that once it subtracts plaintiff’s
work on fees from the total amount claimed, plaintiff seeks $12,965.63 for time billed for the
merits. This too appears to be excessive. The parties were able to resolve the FOIA request within
six months from the date plaintiff filed its suit and without any briefing. There was also nothing
particularly complex about the narrow FOIA request. See Mot. to Stay; see also Time Records at
lines 1–69 (documenting mostly emails and telephone calls). Therefore, the Court will reduce the
award for time billed on the merits by 25% and will award $9,723.75.
In sum, the Court will grant plaintiff’s motion for attorneys’ fees and costs and it will award
$11,723.75 for attorneys’ fees and $422.08 in costs for a total of $12,145.83.
AMY BERMAN JACKSON
United States District Judge
DATE: January 10, 2018
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