Singh v. United States Postal Service

Filing 29

ORDER granting Defendant's 22 Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by U.S. District Judge John C Coughenour. (PM)

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THE HONORABLE JOHN C. COUGHENOUR 1 2 3 4 5 6 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON AT SEATTLE 7 8 9 KEERUT SINGH, 10 CASE NO. C17-0233-JCC Plaintiff, v. 11 ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, 12 13 Defendant. 14 15 This matter comes before the Court on Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 No. 22). Having thoroughly considered the parties’ briefing and the relevant record, the Court finds oral argument unnecessary and GRANTS the motion for the reasons explained herein. I. BACKGROUND On February 14, 2017, Plaintiff Keerut Singh sued Defendant the United States Postal Service (USPS) asserting violations of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552(a), and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a. (Dkt. No. 1 at 1-2.) Singh, a former USPS employee, alleges that he requested his own background investigation and personnel file, but that the USPS failed to provide the requested documents or to conduct a reasonable search for them. (Id. at 2, 6.) The evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to Singh, shows the following: ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT PAGE - 1 1 When Singh began working at the USPS in late 2014, he signed a waiver stating: “I 2 UNDERSTAND THAT THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE IS EMPLOYING ME WITHOUT THE 3 RESULTS OF THE PREVIOUS EMPLOYER, CRIMINAL CHECKS OR DRUG TEST 4 RESULTS BEING RECEIVED. I UNDERSTAND THAT IF DEROGATORY 5 INFORMATION IS RECEIVED, I MAY BE TERMINATED.” (Dkt. No. 27-1 at 2.) He was 6 also fingerprinted. (See id. at 4; Dkt. No. 27 at 8.) 7 During his tenure at the USPS, Singh felt that he was being investigated, perhaps for 8 whistleblowing or for potential terrorist activity. (Dkt. No. 27 at 5.) Singh ultimately quit his job 9 at the USPS, and his last day of work there was June 15, 2016. (Dkt. No. 27-1 at 16.) He left the 10 USPS to work for the City of Bothell. (Id. at 18.) Singh was terminated from his Bothell position 11 on July 28, 2016. (Dkt. No. 27 at 7.) 12 In late 2016, Singh submitted three FOIA requests, one to each of the USPS’s three 13 branches: the Inspector General (OIG), (Dkt. No. 26 at 2), the Postal Inspection Service, (Dkt. 14 No. 25 at 2-3), and the Postal Service (Dkt. No. 24 at 2). 15 Singh’s first request was to the OIG on October 18, 2016. (Dkt. No. 26 at 2.) He 16 requested his background check records, application documents, safety records, driving records, 17 employee performance evaluations, and any investigations of him conducted by the OIG. (Dkt. 18 No. 26-1 at 2.) Regarding this request, the USPS submits a declaration from Robert Fullerton, 19 Manager of the OIG’s FOIA unit. (Dkt. No. 26.) According to Fullerton, the OIG searched its 20 indices for responsive records and determined that Singh had been a USPS employee. (Id. at 2.) 21 However, Fullerton explains, “Postal Service personnel and background investigation files are 22 not under OIG control and [the OIG] cannot release them under FOIA.” (Id.) Fullerton avers that 23 no other responsive records were located. (Id.) 24 The OIG sent Singh a letter explaining these circumstances, providing addresses for the 25 Postal Inspection Service and the Postal Service, and advising Singh that his FOIA request must 26 be submitted directly to them. (Dkt. No. 26-1 at 2-3.) Singh appealed this response. (See 5.) ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT PAGE - 2 1 The OIG confirmed that the requested records were not in its possession or control and told 2 Singh to contact the Postal Service. (Id.) 3 On November 3, Singh submitted a FOIA request to the Postal Inspection Service 4 seeking “all background records obtained before and during [his] employment.” (Dkt. No. 25 at 5 2-3; Dkt. No. 25-1 at 2.) Regarding this request, the USPS submits a declaration from Kimberly 6 Mungin, Information Disclosure Technician at the Postal Inspection Service. (Dkt. No. 25.) 7 According to Mungin, Singh indicated that he was a former City Carrier Assistant 1 (CCA1) for 8 the Postal Service. (Dkt. No. 25 at 1, 3.) Mungin states that the Postal Inspection Service “did not 9 conduct background investigations on CCA1s at the time [Singh] was seeking employment with 10 the Postal Service.” (Id. at 3.) Nonetheless, the Postal Inspection Service conducted a search for 11 responsive records using Singh’s name and date of birth. (Id.) The relevant database contained 12 information such as names, Social Security numbers, case numbers, addresses, reports, physical 13 identifying characteristics, and employment and payroll information. (Id.) Mungin avers that the 14 search “disclosed no record that [Singh] has ever been the subject of a background investigation 15 conducted by” the Postal Inspection Service. (Id. at 4.) 16 On November 17, the Postal Inspection Service sent Singh a letter informing him that no 17 responsive records were found. (Dkt. No. 25-1 at 4.) Singh appealed this response. (Id. at 7.) The 18 USPS Federal Compliance Office affirmed the decision, concluding that the Postal Inspection 19 Service “conducted an adequate search for [Singh’s] background check records and correctly 20 informed [him] that no responsive records exist.” ( 9.) 21 On December 3, Singh submitted a FOIA request to the Postal Service, requesting the 22 same records he sought from the OIG. (Compare Dkt. No. 24-1 with Dkt. No. 26-1 at 2.) 23 Regarding this request, the USPS submits a declaration from Janine Castorina, the Chief Privacy 24 and Records Management Officer for the Postal Service. (Dkt. No. 24.) Castorina states that, 25 after reviewing Singh’s request, it was determined that the Seattle District was most likely to 26 have responsive records. (Id. at 2-3.) The Seattle District Records Custodian searched Singh’s ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT PAGE - 3 1 official personnel file, as well as the District’s Human Resources (HR) Department and Labor 2 Relations Office. (Id. at 3.) These searches produced 43 pages of responsive records, which the 3 Seattle District sent to Singh on December 13, 2016. (Id.; Dkt. No. 24-1 at 5.) Castorina avers 4 that “no records were intentionally withheld or deemed exempt from disclosure by the Seattle 5 District.” (Dkt. No. 24 at 3.) 6 Singh appealed the Seattle District’s determination that all responsive records had been 7 produced. (Dkt. No. 24-1 at 11.) The Federal Compliance Office reviewed his appeal. (Dkt. No. 8 24 at 4.) It determined that, although appropriate records were searched in the District’s initial 9 response, some documents may have been maintained by the local post office where Singh was 10 employed. (Id.) The Federal Compliance Office remanded the request for a further search of the 11 records maintained by the Mill Creek Post Office. (Id.) Three additional documents were 12 identified as responsive to Singh’s request and provided to him. (Id.; Dkt. No. 24-1 at 15.) 13 Because Singh continued to insist that additional documents existed, Castorina asked the 14 USPS Headquarters HR Manager, Joseph Bruce, to conduct an additional investigation. (Dkt. 15 No. 24 at 4.) Bruce had access to all USPS HR records and databases. (Id.) As part of his effort 16 to locate any remaining documents, he searched databases containing: (1) employee and family 17 information, such as names, Social Security numbers, employee identification numbers, and birth 18 dates; (2) personnel information, such as warning letters, notices of removal, grievances, and 19 appeals; (3) employment investigation information, such as criminal, employment, military, and 20 driving records, drug screening, medical assessments, and Special Agency Check with Inquiries 21 (SACI) records; (4) job performance records, such as postal assignments, individual performance 22 evaluations, and employee recognition awards; (5) employee development and training 23 information, including records related to work history, assessments, training, examinations, and 24 evaluations; and (6) financial information, such as payroll, compensation, benefits, decisions 25 related to monetary awards, injury compensation, and claims for personal property loss or 26 damage. (Id. at 5-6.) Bruce did not find any additional records in his searches. (Id.) ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT PAGE - 4 1 In response, Singh filed the present lawsuit, asking the Court to order the USPS to 2 provide all background check and personnel file records. (Dkt. No. 1 at 6.) The USPS now 3 moves for summary judgment, arguing that it has fulfilled its obligations to Singh under FOIA 4 and the Privacy Act. (Dkt. No. 22 at 2.) 5 II. DISCUSSION 6 A. Summary Judgment Standard 7 The Court shall grant summary judgment if the moving party shows that there is no 8 genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a 9 matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In making such a determination, the Court must view the 10 facts and justifiable inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the 11 nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). Once a motion for 12 summary judgment is properly made and supported, the opposing party must present specific 13 facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); Matsushita Elec. Indus. 14 Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). Material facts are those that may affect the 15 outcome of the case, and a dispute about a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence 16 for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49. 17 Ultimately, summary judgment is appropriate against a party who “fails to make a showing 18 sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that 19 party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). 20 B. FOIA Claims 21 The key question in a FOIA action is whether the Government improperly withheld 22 agency records. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); Kissinger v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the 23 Press, 445 U.S. 136, 150 (1980). “Summary judgment is the procedural vehicle by which nearly 24 all FOIA cases are resolved.” Shannahan v. I.R.S., 637 F. Supp. 2d 902, 912 (W.D. Wash. 2009) 25 (internal quotations omitted). This is because “the facts are rarely in dispute, and courts generally 26 need not resolve whether there is a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT PAGE - 5 1 Instead, the Court follows a two-step inquiry when considering a summary judgment 2 motion in a FOIA case. Id. The Court first evaluates whether the Government conducted a search 3 that is “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.” Zemansky v. Envtl. Prot. 4 Agency, 767 F.2d 569, 571 (9th Cir. 1985) (internal quotations omitted). If the agency satisfies 5 this burden, the Court then determines whether the undisclosed information falls within one of 6 the nine FOIA exemptions. Shannahan, 637 F. Supp. at 912. Here, the Government does not 7 maintain that any exemption applies. (See Dkt. No. 22 at 10.) Instead, it argues that it has 8 produced all responsive documents. (Id.) Accordingly, the Court’s analysis will focus only on the 9 first step of this inquiry. 10 Based on the evidence produced, the Court concludes that the USPS conducted a search 11 “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.” See Zemansky, 767 F.2d at 571. The 12 USPS’s declarations detail a thorough and reasonable effort by each of its branches to search 13 databases that were likely to produce the requested records, plus a much more in-depth general 14 search by Bruce. This is sufficient to warrant summary judgment on Singh’s FOIA claim. See id. 15 at 573 (“[A]ffidavits describing agency search procedures are sufficient for purposes of summary 16 judgment only if they are relatively detailed in their description of the files searched and the 17 search procedures, and if they are nonconclusory and not impugned by evidence of bad faith.”); 18 see also Weisberg v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344, 1351 (D.C. Cir. 1983) (“The issue [on 19 summary judgment] is not whether any further documents might conceivably exist, but rather 20 whether the government’s search for responsive documents was adequate.”). 21 Singh’s arguments to the contrary are unavailing. He first argues that he has presented 22 evidence of bad faith on the USPS’s behalf. (Dkt. No. 27 at 2.) For example, he notes that he did 23 not receive “INV Form79A.” (Dkt. No. 17-1 at 2.) However, the evidence he produced also 24 shows the USPS’s explanation for this: “We do not maintain those forms in our files and cannot 25 provide to you a form that is not maintained.” (Id. at 15.) Singh also points to a clerical error the 26 USPS made, using the wrong case number in originally responding to his FOIA requests. (See ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT PAGE - 6 1 Dkt. No. 27 at 11.) The Court is not convinced that a scrivener’s error of this kind signifies 2 nefarious intent. Singh fails to show any bad faith on the part of the USPS. 3 Singh further insists that there are other records—specifically, a complete background 4 check—that were not produced. (See Dkt. No. 27 at 8-9.) He reasons that the “background check 5 records must exist,” (see id. at 9) (emphasis in original), because, when he was hired, he signed a 6 form stating that he could be terminated if the USPS received “derogatory information” from a 7 past employer, criminal check, or drug test. (See Dkt. No. 27-1 at 2.). But Singh also 8 acknowledges that the documents produced include 13 records related to his SACI, which is a 9 type of background investigation. (See Dkt. No. 27 at 13.) Thus, Singh does not present evidence 10 to overcome the declarations presented by the USPS. See Albuquerque Publ’g Co. v. U.S. Dep’t 11 of Justice, 726 F. Supp. 851, 860 (D.D.C. 1989) (“Agency affidavits enjoy a presumption of 12 good faith that withstands purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of 13 other documents.”). And regardless, the question before the Court is “not whether any further 14 documents might conceivably exist, but rather whether the government’s search for responsive 15 documents was adequate.” Weisberg, 705 F.2d at 1351. And the Court has concluded it was. 16 Singh also challenges Mungin’s declaration because she is “not a supervisor, and it 17 appears that she does not have the proper knowledge to validate her Declaration.” (Dkt. No. 27 at 18 9.) The Court disagrees. First, Mungin need not have the title of supervisor to qualify as a 19 declarant; rather, affidavits may be made by any individual supervising the search. See Carney v. 20 Dep’t of Justice, 19 F.3d 807, 814 (2d Cir. 1994). In her position as Information Disclosure 21 Technician, Mungin analyzes and responds to FOIA and Privacy Act requests submitted to the 22 Postal Inspection Service. (Dkt. No. 25 at 1-2.) She is “familiar with the [Postal Inspection 23 Service]’s policies, practices, and procedures regarding the administration processing, and 24 release of information requested under [FOIA and the Privacy Act], and the records and record 25 systems employed by [the Postal Inspection Service] in which the information is maintained.” 26 (Id. at 2.) This is sufficient to qualify her as a declarant for purposes of summary judgment. ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT PAGE - 7 Finally, Singh complains that the USPS “only provided records in response to four of 1 2 [his] requests and ignored all the other requests.” (Dkt. No. 27 at 12.) This conflates the USPS’s 3 response to his request with the availability of responsive records. The USPS did in fact respond 4 to all of his requests—by telling him that no further documents were found. 5 The USPS’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED as to Singh’s FOIA claim. 6 C. 7 The Privacy Act regulates the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personal 8 information by federal agencies. Rouse v. U.S. Dep’t of State, 567 F.3d 408, 413 (9th Cir. 2009). 9 There are two types of Privacy Act claims: “accuracy” claims and “access” claims. Id. at 413-14. Privacy Act Claims 10 Singh raises only an access claim, so the Court’s analysis will be limited to that standard. The 11 access provision requires federal agencies to provide an individual access to his or her records 12 upon request. 5 U.S.C. § 552a(d)(1); Rouse, 567 F.3d at 414. However, this only includes access 13 to records maintained in a “system of records,” meaning “a group of any records under the 14 control of any agency from which information is retrieved by the name of the individual or by 15 some identifying number, symbol, or other identifying particular assigned to the individual.” 16 5 U.S.C. § 552a(a)(5). This limitation strikes a balance “between affording individuals access to 17 those records relating directly to them and protecting federal agencies from the burdensome task 18 of searching through agency records for mere mention of an individual’s name.” Bettersworth v. 19 F.D.I.C., 248 F.3d 386, 391 (5th Cir. 2001). 20 Again, the USPS has met its obligations to Singh. It granted him access to all documents 21 it could locate by searching its records for his name and birth date. This was sufficient to satisfy 22 his request for access under the Privacy Act. The USPS’s motion is GRANTED as to this claim. 23 III. CONCLUSION 24 For the foregoing reasons, the USPS’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 22) is 25 GRANTED. Singh’s claims are DISMISSED with prejudice. The Clerk is directed to CLOSE 26 this case. ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT PAGE - 8 1 DATED this 10th day of July, 2017. 4 A 5 John C. Coughenour UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 2 3 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT PAGE - 9

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