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Eakin v. United States Department of Defense

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, San Antonio Division

December 17, 2019

JOHN EAKIN, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Royce C. Lamberth United States District Court Judge

         Plaintiff John Eakin has filed a pro se Motion for Partial Summary Judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Fed. R. Civ. P.") 56(c). ECF No. 46."The United States Department of Defense opposes this motion. ECF No. 48. Upon consideration of the motion, opposition, reply (ECF No. 49), and sur-reply (ECF No. 52), the Court will deny Mr. Eakin's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         In 2010, Mr. Eakin brought a Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") action to obtain documents pertaining to those who served in World War II but whose remains were never properly identified and returned to their families. At issue in this case are the approximately 480, 000 files known as Individual Deceased Personnel files ("IDPFs") of World War II American Servicemembers that have been or are expected to be digitally scanned as computer files. Mr. Eakin's May 10, 2016 FOIA request sought the following:

Electronic (digital) copies of all World War II era Individual Deceased Personnel Files (IDPFs) a/k/a/ 293 files and/or "X-files" which exist in any digital or electronic format. Included in this request are any indices, data dictionaries, databases or other documents necessary to properly access the requested IDPF documents.

         On May 13, 2016, the Defense Department notified him that this request was received but that it would be unable to respond within the twenty-day statutory time period. He appealed this decision on May 16, 2016. Mr. Eakin also filed a FOIA request on May 11, 2016, seeking the following:

1. All contracts, contract amendments/modifications, and similar documents pertaining to contracts for digital scanning of U.S. Army Individual Deceased Personnel Files (IDPFs) previously stored at National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and which were funded by the Defense Personnel Accounting Agency (f/k/a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Office).
2. All documents which identify users/agencies having electronic access to the above described digitally scanned Individual Deceased Personnel Files (IDPFs).

         On May 23, 2016, the Defense Department notified Mr. Eakin that this request was received but that it would be unable to respond within the twenty-day statutory time period. On May 23, 2016, he appealed that decision. On September 30, 2016, Mr. Eakin initiated this lawsuit against the Defense Department.

         Prior to Mr. Eakin's May of 2016 FOIA requests, U.S. Army Contracting Command had entered into a contract with Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems, Inc. to scan some of the IDPFs at issue into digital files. At the time of Mr. Eakin's FOIA requests, Lockheed Martin had -already digitized approximately 290, 000 IDPFs, including the IDPFs for deceased U.S. Military Personnel whose last names begin with the letters A through L. See ECF No. 48 at 3. In September of 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services entered into a contract with Na Ali'i Consulting & Sales, LLC to digitize the hundreds of thousands of remaining IDPFs, including the IDPFs for deceased U.S. Military Personnel whose last names begin with the letters M through Z. See Id. at 4. These digitized M-L IDPFs, however, did not exist in May of 2016 when Mr. Eakin made his FOIA requests, as the contract for the M-Z IDPFs was not even in effect at that time.

         Since the Court's August 2, 2017 Order, the Defense Department has produced numerous redacted files for service personnel with last names beginning with A and B as well as some beginning with C. The Defense Department, however, claims that some of the documents (identified in the twelve-page Vaughn Index provided to Mr. Eakin on January 12, 2018) are either non-responsive embedded requests or are exempt from production under statutory exemption 6. Mr. Eakin challenges the validity of the Defense Department's decision to withhold or redact these documents and asks this Court to order the Defense Department to turn oyer those files. Additionally, he asks for an order requiring the Defense Department to complete its review of the digitized files currently in its possession within thirty days. Finally, he asks for an order requiring production of documents digitized after his May of 2016 FOIA request, which the Defense Department argues that the Court does not have authority to do at this time. For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny his Motion for Partial Summary Judgment in its entirety.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, summary judgment is appropriate when "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact" and that he "is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant has the burden of proving the absence of any genuine issues of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Factual assertions in the moving party's affidavits or declarations may be accepted as true unless the opposing party submits his or her own affidavits or declarations of documentary evidence that contradict those of the moving party. Although agency decisions are generally entitled to a great deal of deference, an agency's actions with respect to FOIA requests are reviewed de novo. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).

         If a plaintiff has not exhausted all administrative remedies, the Court may not review the agency's decision. Failure to exhaust all administrative remedies is thus a jurisdictional bar to review. A plaintiff may, however, constructively exhaust his administrative remedies under FOIA, giving the Court subject-matter jurisdiction over a plaintiffs claim "upon the expiration of certain relevant FOIA deadlines." Nurse v. Sec'y of the Air Force,231 F.Supp.2d 323, 328 (D.D.C. 2002); 5 U.S.C. ยง 552(a)(6)(C). ...


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