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Western Watersheds Project v. Bureau of Land Management

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 27, 2019



          Ronald E. Bush Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         Pending before the Court is (1) Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 17) and (2) Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 28). Having carefully considered the record and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order:


         This is an action under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) to compel Defendant Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) to produce records that Plaintiff Western Watersheds Project (“WWP”) requested in two unrelated FOIA requests in 2017 and 2018. The first request (FOIA Control Number 2018-00056), sent on September 27, 2017, concerned an audio recording and presentation slides from a BLM National Office presentation that occurred on September 21, 2017, regarding changes to the BLM’s implementation of several laws. The second request (FOIA Control Number 2018-00591), sent on March 14, 2018, concerned Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) consultation records related to the BLM’s Converse County Oil and Gas Project in Wyoming. According to WWP’s Complaint, the BLM did not produce a full response or determination with respect to either FOIA request within the time allowed by statute and, to that end, WWP has received no records or other legally adequate response concerning either request.[1]

         The BLM answered WWP’s Complaint on February 7, 2019, filing an Amended Answer on February 14, 2019. Four days later, WWP filed its Motion for Summary Judgment, requesting that the Court enter (1) summary judgment declaring that the BLM violated FOIA by failing to timely respond to both requests, and (2) an order directing the BLM to immediately release all responsive records and enjoining BLM from continuing to withhold records to which WWP is entitled. The parties agreed to stay the briefing on WWP’s Motion for Summary Judgment in the hopes of informally resolving the case; when that proved unsuccessful, the BLM also moved for summary judgment, arguing that (1) it complied with 2018-00056 in full on February 25, 2019 and, therefore, WWP’s First, Second, and Third Claims for Relief should be dismissed; and (2) despite its diligence in attempting to timely respond to 2018-00591, unusual circumstances justify the need for additional time.


         A. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is proper when a “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). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). And a dispute is “genuine” if there is evidence in the record sufficient for a reasonable trier of fact to decide in favor of the nonmoving party. Id. The court must view the inferences reasonably drawn from the materials in the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587–88 (1986), and “may not weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations, ” Freeman v. Arpaio, 125 F.3d 732, 735 (9th Cir. 1997).

         With respect to summary judgment procedure, the moving party always bears both the ultimate burden of persuasion and the initial burden of producing those portions of the pleadings, discovery, and affidavits that show the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Where the moving party will bear the burden of proof on an issue at trial, it mush show that no reasonable trier of fact could not find in its favor. See id. at 325. “If a moving party fails to carry its initial burden of production, the nonmoving party has no obligation to produce anything, even if the nonmoving party would have the ultimate burden of persuasion at trial.” Nissan Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Fritz Companies, Inc., 210 F.3d 1099, 1102–03 (9th Cir. 2000).

         “If, however, a moving party carries its burden of production, the nonmoving party must produce evidence to support its claim or defense.” Id. at 1103. In doing so, the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec., 475 U.S. at 586. A nonmoving party must also “identify with reasonable particularity the evidence that precludes summary judgment, ” because the duty of the Court is not to “scour the record in search of a genuine issue of triable fact.” Keenan v. Allan, 91 F.3d 1275, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996). If a nonmoving party fails to produce evidence that supports its claim or defense, the court must enter summary judgment in favor of the movant. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

         The standard applicable to motions for summary judgment does not generally change if the parties file cross motions, as is the case here. See, e.g., Cady v. Hartford Life & Accidental Ins., 930 F.Supp.2d 1216, 1223 (D. Idaho 2013). However, the court must evaluate each party’s motion on its own merits. See Fair Hous. Council of Riverside Cty., Inc. v. Riverside Two, 249 F.3d 1132, 1136 (9th Cir. 2001).

         B. FOIA

         FOIA “was enacted to facilitate public access to Government documents.” Lahr v. Nat’l Transp. Safety Bd., 569 F.3d 964, 973 (9th Cir. 2009) (internal citation omitted). The goal of FOIA is to “ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” Id. (internal citation omitted). At the same time, FOIA contemplates that the government may have legitimate reasons for withholding some information from the public. See id. Accordingly, FOIA “requires federal agencies to make Government records available to the public, subject to nine exemptions for specific categories of material.” Milner v. Dep’t of Navy, 562 U.S. 562, 564 (2011). These nine FOIA exemptions are “explicitly made exclusive and must be narrowly construed.” Id. at 565 (internal citations omitted).

         FOIA cases are typically decided on motions for summary judgment because the facts are rarely in dispute. See Minier v. Cent. Intelligence Agency, 88 F.3d 796, 800 (9th Cir. 1996). Upon a motion for summary judgment, a district court analyzes the withholding of documents de novo. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). FOIA permits a district court to enjoin a defendant agency from withholding agency records or to order a defendant agency to produce any improperly withheld records. See id.

         A defendant agency “must show that its search for responsive records was adequate, that any claimed exemptions actually apply, and that any reasonably segregable, non-exempt parts of records have been disclosed after redaction of exempt information.” Light v. Dep’t of Justice, 968 F.Supp.2d 11, 23 (D.D.C. 2013); accord Lahr, 569 F.3d at 973; Pac. Fisheries, Inc. v. United States, 539 F.3d 1143, 1148 (9th Cir. 2008). The agency bears the burden to show that it has complied with its obligations under FOIA. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).


         To begin, the BLM concedes that it did not timely respond to 2018-00056, but it says that it ultimately complied with the request in full on February 25, 2019:

Request 2018-00056, to BLM in Washington, D.C., was for a presentation to BLM Secretary of Interior Zinke. The Washington Field Office of BLM had a large volume of FOIA requests [(350 requests by the end of 2017)]. It ...

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