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Western Watersheds Project v. Bureau of Land Management

September 13, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Candy W. Dale Chief United States Magistrate Judge


Pending before the Court are cross motions for summary judgment. (Docket Nos. 7, 14.) Having thoroughly reviewed the record and the briefing submitted by the parties as well as hearing oral argument on the motions, the Court issues the following Order.


On August 16, 2007, Plaintiffs Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians filed a Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") request with the Bureau of Land Management ("BLM") seeking basic information regarding BLM's ongoing management of livestock grazing on public lands. (Docket No. 11-3.) In their requests, Plaintiffs sought information concerning:

Any and all records maintained by the BLM through its Rangeland Administration System (RAS) or otherwise within the agency's control -that tends to show the identify of all individuals and/or entities currently holding BLM grazing permits for each and every livestock grazing allotment within the BLM system of lands. These records should include, but are not limited to:

a. Each permittee's name;

b. Each permittee's postal and electronic mailing address;

c. Each permittee's telephone number;

d. Each permittee's associated allotment name and number; and

e. The length of time each permittee has held such grazing privilege on BLM Lands.*fn1

On September 20, 2007, the BLM sent Plaintiffs a letter indicating that their FOIA request was placed on a complex track and would require more time to respond to the requests because clarification was needed. (Docket No. 11-3.) Further, the letter provided that the responses could be provided once BLM made appropriate modifications to its existing database - the Rangeland Administration System ("RAS"). On October 2, 2008, the Plaintiffs sent a letter clarifying their requests. (Docket No. 11-3.) In a letter dated May 13, 2008, the BLM refused to disclose certain unspecified portions of the information requested, claiming that it was protected from disclosure under Exemption 6 of the FOIA. (Docket No. 11-3.) This letter also directed Plaintiffs to the RAS website which allows public access to a menu of available reports for all BLM allotments/permits.*fn2 (Cooley Decl., Docket No. 11-4.) On September 9, 2008, the Plaintiffs appealed BLM's use of 5 U.S.C. §552(b)(6) or Exemption 6, to withhold information. The Department of Interior denied the Plaintiff's appeal on September 30, 2008, in a letter which included as an attachment a letter that denied an almost identical FOIA request by Forest Guardians (know as "WildEarth Guardians") in 2005.

The 2005 letter explained that the information withheld was withheld in accordance with BLM's internal policies. BLM's division of the grazing permittees into the three categories identified below determines what information the BLM releases in response to an FOIA request.

Category 1 includes all permittees whose names, designations and/or identifiers indicate clearly that they are formally organized and operating as a business. For this category of permittees, the BLM has determined that permittees have no privacy interest in their contact information and that all contact information can be released.

Category 2a permittees includes entities listed under a personal name along with the words "Ranch" or "Farm" plus some additional legal designation such as Inc., Corp., Co., or LLP. The BLM has determined that these entities are usually closely held or family owned businesses and retain a reduced privacy interest in their contact information. Therefore, the BLM releases the permittee's name, operator number or authorization number, city, state and five digit zip code. The permittee's street/mailing address and telephone number are withheld.

Finally, Category 2b includes permittees holding a permit under a personal name or in the individual's name plus the word "Ranch" or "Farm" without a public designator. The BLM has determined that these permittees have the highest interest in their privacy and, as a result, only the operator or authorization number, city, state and five digit zip code are released by the BLM. The permittee's name as well as street/mailing addresses and telephone number are withheld. (Cooley Declaration ¶ 11, Docket No. 11-4.)

Plaintiffs Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians ("Plaintiffs") filed this action against the BLM and the Department of the Interior ("Defendants") on September 24, 2009. (Complaint, Docket No. 1.) The Complaint alleges that Defendants violated the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") by not fully responding to their requests for information regarding grazing permits and permittees authorized to graze livestock on federal public lands. Defendants filed an Answer to the Complaint on October 30, 2009. (Docket No. 4.) On October 27, 2009, the BLM through the U.S. Attorney's Office, provided Plaintiffs' counsel with a disk containing all of the information requested except for the information described above related to the Category 2a and 2b permittees. Soon after, Plaintiffs filed their Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 7) on their FOIA claim. Defendants responded to Plaintiffs' motion and filed a Motion for Summary Judgment of their own. (Docket No. 11.)*fn3 After several extensions of time requested for briefing by both parties, the motions are fully briefed and pending before the Court.


1. Summary Judgment Standard

Motions for summary judgment are governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides, in pertinent part, that judgment "should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). Under Rule 56, summary judgment is mandated if the non-moving party fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element which is essential to the non-moving party's case and upon which the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial. See Celotex Corp v. Catrett 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). If the non-moving party fails to make such a showing on any essential element, "there can be no 'genuine issue of material fact,' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Id. at 323.*fn4

Moreover, under Rule 56, it is clear that an issue, in order to preclude entry of summary judgment, must be both "material" and "genuine." An issue is "material" if it affects the outcome of the litigation. An issue, before it may be considered "genuine," must be established by "sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute . . . to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." Hahn v. Sargent 523 F.2d 461, 464 (1st Cir. 1975) quoting First Nat'l Bank v. Cities Serv. Co. Inc., 391 U.S. 253, 289 (1968). The Ninth Circuit cases are in accord. See, e.g., British Motor Car Distrib. v. San Francisco Automotive Indus. Welfare Fund, 882 F.2d 371 (9th Cir. 1989). When applying this standard, the court must view all of the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Hughes v. United States, 953 F.2d 531, 541 (9th Cir. 1992). Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") claims, such as this one, are typically decided on summary judgment. Lane v. Dep't of Interior, 523 F.3d 128, 1134 (9th Cir. 2008).*fn5

2. Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") was enacted to facilitate public access to government records. Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics v. United States Forest Service, 524 F.3d 1021 (9th Cir. 2008) citing John Doe Agency v. John Doe Corp. 493 U.S. 146, 151 (1989). The statute's purpose is "to pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny." Id. Citing Dep't of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976). Therefore, the FOIA requires every federal entity to make requested records "promptly available to any person." Id. Citing 5 U.S.C.§ 552(a)(3)(A). This requirement does not apply if the information requested falls into one of nine exemptions included in the FOIA. 5 U.S.C. §552(b). The burden is ...

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