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Bush v. United States Department of Agriculture

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division

August 17, 2017

WILLIAM J. BUSH, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, RISK MANAGEMENT AGENCY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          C.J. WILLIAMS CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court pursuant to defendant's summary judgment motion. (Doc. 20). Plaintiff filed a timely resistance. (Doc. 26). The Court heard oral argument on July 20, 2017. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants defendant's motion for summary judgment.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On November 16, 2016, pro se plaintiff, William J. Bush, filed this action against the Risk Management Agency (RMA), an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), seeking the disclosure of soybean and corn yields within four townships in Cherokee County, Iowa, as well as other relief involving attorney fees and litigation costs and intra-agency disciplinary action. (Doc. 1).

         On December 5, 2016, plaintiff filed an amended complaint. (Doc. 3). On June 8, 2017, the Court denied plaintiff's pro se motions and defendant's motion to dismiss. (Doc. 25). The Court found summary judgment was the most appropriate vehicle to assess the issues raised by defendant in its motion to dismiss. Plaintiff was ordered to file a response to defendant's summary judgment motion by June 22. Plaintiff timely resisted the motion. (Doc. 26). Subsequently, defendant filed a timely reply. (Doc. 27). The summary judgment motion is now ripe.

         III. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS

         Generally FOIA-based lawsuits are best handled on summary judgment. See, e.g., Def. of Wildlife v. U.S. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D. D.C. 2009) (“FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment.”) (citing Bigwood v. U.S. Agency for Int'l Dev., 484 F.Supp.2d 68, 73 (D. D.C. 2007); Farrugia v. Exec. Office for U.S. Att'ys, No. Civ.A. 04-0294 PLF, 2006 WL 335771, at *3 (D. D.C. Feb. 14, 2006)); Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Export-Import Bank, 108 F.Supp.2d 19, 25 (D. D.C. 2000) (“FOIA litigation is typically adjudicated through summary judgment.”). Summary judgment is appropriate when the 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) (2016). A movant must cite to “particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . . admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). 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) (citation omitted). “An issue of material fact is genuine if it has a real basis in the record[, ]” Hartnagel v. Norman, 953 F.2d 394, 395 (8th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted), or “when a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party on the question[, ]” Wood v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 409 F.3d 984, 990 (8th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Evidence that presents only “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986), or evidence that is “merely colorable” or “not significantly probative, ” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50, does not make an issue of fact genuine. In sum, a genuine issue of material fact requires “sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute” that it “require[s] a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” (Id. at 248-49 (internal quotation marks and quotation omitted)).

         The party moving for summary judgment bears “the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record which show a lack of a genuine issue.” Hartnagel, 953 F.2d at 395. Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must go beyond the pleadings and by depositions, affidavits, or other evidence designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Mosley v. City of Northwoods, Mo., 415 F.3d 908, 910 (8th Cir. 2005).

         In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, courts must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, giving that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the facts. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587-88 (citation omitted); see also Reed v. City of St. Charles, Mo., 561 F.3d 788, 790 (8th Cir. 2009) (stating that in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the facts “in a light most favorable to the non-moving party-as long as those facts are not so ‘blatantly contradicted by the record . . . that no reasonable jury could believe' them.”) (alteration in original) (quoting Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007)). A court does “not weigh the evidence or attempt to determine the credibility of the witnesses.” Kammueller v. Loomis, Fargo & Co., 383 F.3d 779, 784 (8th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). Rather, a “court's function is to determine whether a dispute about a material fact is genuine.” Quick v. Donaldson Co., Inc., 90 F.3d 1372, 1376-77 (8th Cir. 1996).

         The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has explained:

In a FOIA case, summary judgment is available to a defendant agency where “the agency proves that it has fully discharged its obligations under FOIA, after the underlying facts and the inferences to be drawn from them are construed in the light most favorable to the FOIA requester.” Miller v. U.S. Dep't of State, 779 F.2d 1378, 1382 (8th Cir. 1985) (citing Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344, 1350 (D.C. Cir. 1983)).

Mo. Coal. for Env't Found. v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng'rs, 542 F.3d 1204, 1209 (8th Cir. 2008). See also Twist v. Gonzales, 171 Fed.Appx. 855, 855 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (“The factual question . . . is whether the search was reasonably calculated to discover the requested documents, . . .” (first alteration in original)). A District Court may grant summary judgment for the government “based solely on the information provided in affidavits or declarations when the affidavits or declarations describe ‘the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstrate that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record nor by evidence of agency bad faith.'” Fischer v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 596 F.Supp.2d 34, 42 (D. D.C. 2009) (quoting Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981)).

         The agency has the burden to prove that each requested record is either: unidentifiable, produced, or exempt from FOIA. Miller, 779 F.2d at 1382-83. To oppose a summary judgment motion, the non-moving party “cannot simply rest upon conclusory statements, but must instead set forth affirmative evidence showing a genuine issue for trial.” Physicians for Human Rights v. U.S. Dep't of Defense, 675 F.Supp.2d 149, 156 (D. D.C. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). A district court reviews the agency's denial of the FOIA request de novo. Fischer, 596 F.Supp.2d at 42.

         IV. ...


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