Judge Tells CBP That It Certainly CAN Be Sued For Its FOIA Response Foot Dragging
from the there's-a-reason-the-CBP-is-rarely-the-'moving'-party-in-FOIA-lawsui dept
Customs and Border Patrol, like many government agencies involved with law enforcement and/or security, isn’t all that thrilled that Joe Citizen can demand access to its records. When not dragging its feet on requests, the agency actively thwarts FOIA requests, albeit using more than the normal “so sue us” non-response.
The DHS’s Inspector General found that over a three-year period (2011-13), the CBP “mishandled” 23,000 FOIA requests. “Mishandled” is a misnomer. The agency improperly closed 11,000 requests. The other 12,000 requests were stashed in boxes and forgotten, never making their way into the CBP’s FOIA response system.
A class action lawsuit has been brought against the agency for its “pattern and practice of failing to respond to FOIA requests within the statutory timeline.” The plaintiffs are five immigration attorneys and thirteen non-citizens, the latter of which have found it difficult to remain in the country legally thanks to the CBP’s unwillingness to turn over documents pertaining to their immigration status. (via Courthouse New Service)
The order notes that the CBP does not challenge the assertion that it doesn’t respond in a timely fashion. But, as the plaintiffs point out, this is a problem that the CBP doesn’t seem to be interested in solving. As it stands now, it’s unlikely the CBP will get its FOIA act together. At least not in the near future. Or possibly ever.
CBP does not seriously dispute that it has failed to respond to plaintiffs’ FOIA requests within the statutory timelines. See, e.g., Dkt. No. 29 at 2 n.1. Plaintiffs also allege that CBP’s FOIA backlog — the number of requests that have gone unanswered past the statutory deadline — has swelled over the last few years and will require almost 10 years to zero out at the current pace.
While the CBP doesn’t dispute the accusations of consistently tardy responses, it does make the dubious assertion that a pattern of late (or nonexistent) responses just isn’t an actionable injury in the context of a class action suit.
The government says that the case should be dismissed because an agency’s failure to meet the response deadline is not an actionable violation of FOIA. Dkt. No. 26 at 4. That argument is wholly at odds with the statute and cases construing it. FOIA’s intended purpose is to assure timely public access to governmental information and records. As Congress stated, “‘[i]nformation is often useful only if it is timely. Thus, excessive delay by the agency in its response is often tantamount to denial.’” Gilmore v. U.S. Dep’t of Energy. The denial of access to government records in a timely fashion is precisely the harm FOIA is intended to prevent.
If the people the law is supposed to serve are going to be granted an opportunity to seek redress for their grievances, than you’d better believe FOIA-related foot dragging is actionable — no matter how much the CBP wishes that weren’t the case.
The government grudgingly acknowledges that “[s]ome Northern District of California decisions have recognized claims for delay in responding to FOIA requests” — which of course overlooks the decisions outside this District that reach the same conclusion — but urges the Court to discount them because they pre-date the District of Columbia Circuit opinion in CREW. In the government’s view, CREW undercuts these cases because it holds that the failure to meet FOIA’s deadlines has no legal consequence other than “an agency’s forfeiture of the exhaustion of administrative remedies defense.”
The CBP could not be more wrong, says Judge James Donato.
This argument is tantamount to a willful misreading of CREW. The case says nothing at all about the vitality of a FOIA claim based on a violation of the response deadline. The sole “question presented” in CREW “concerns when a FOIA requester must exhaust administrative appeal remedies before filing suit.” CREW held that when an agency fails to respond to a FOIA request within the statutory timeline, it cannot invoke an administrative exhaustion argument to keep cases out of court.
The government also argues the plaintiffs have no standing because their accusations require “specific allegations of future harm.” Again, Judge Donato points out the error in its thinking.
Once again, CBP’s position is bereft of support. It does not cite a single case holding that specific allegations of futurity are essential to a pattern and practice claim or standing under FOIA. To the contrary, several cases have allowed pattern and practice claims for unreasonable delay — and recognized a plaintiff’s standing to bring them — “even where the plaintiff’s FOIA request had already been resolved.” Gilmore, 33 F. Supp. 2d at 1186 (and cases cited therein).
In Payne itself, the case on which CBP hangs its hat, the court sustained a claim for undue delay despite the fact that the agency had released the specific documents that prompted the lawsuit. And even if allegations of future harm were required, plaintiffs have stated enough facts to infer it here. Plaintiffs include several immigration attorneys, some of whom have practiced for decades, who “regularly file” FOIA requests on behalf of their clients. It is more than plausible to infer that they will continue to make regular FOIA requests for the CBP documents that are critical for their work, and continue to experience improper delays.
The plaintiffs haven’t actually been handed a win here, but rather survived a motion to dismiss from the government. But the court’s reading of the government’s arguments here show it’s not too impressed with the CBP’s excuses for its miserable track record on FOIA responses.
The most disheartening aspect of this lawsuit, however, is contained in the plaintiffs’ complaint. The CBP’s delaying tactics have generated a 10-year backlog of unanswered requests. That backlog will only continue to grow as more and more people avail themselves of FOIA tools provided by the government. The government has opened up the process and made it more accessible, but has yet to fix the bottlenecks in the system — recalcitrant agencies and/or those that are simply understaffed. The problem will continue, as will the lawsuits, for the foreseeable future, no matter the outcome of this particular case.