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Havemann v. Colvin, No. 12-2453, 2013 WL 3943144 (4th Cir. August 1, 2013) (per curiam)
August 1, 2013 Posted by

Re: Request for information concerning “‘the workings inside [defendant] . . . as to their administration of certain of their benefit programs, and the relevant inter-agency interactions.’”

Disposition: Affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment and denial of attorney’s fees and costs

  • Exemption 6:  The Fourth Circuit “affirm[s] the district court’s grant of summary judgment to [defendant]” because the court “conclude[s] that the district court ‘had an adequate factual basis for the decision [it] rendered’ and that its decision was not clearly erroneous.”  Regarding the privacy interest, the court notes that defendant “can withhold data if it demonstrates a likelihood that releasing the information would connect private records to specific individuals.”  The Fourth Circuit relates that, “[a]t issue here are elements of data that are not unique identifiers, but that, according to [defendant], function as unique identifiers because they can be combined with other available information to identify specific individuals.”  The court notes that “[t]he district court agreed with [defendant]‘s categorization of this data and its decision to deny disclosure because of the possibility that the data could be used to single out certain beneficiaries.”  The Fourth Circuit holds that “[t]he record provided to this Court demonstrates that [defendant] thoroughly analyzed and demonstrated the methods through which the withheld data could lead to the identification of specific individuals.”  Moreover, the court finds that “arguments to the contrary fall short because they focus on whether singular pieces of withheld data (e.g., month and day of birth, SSI application date, etc.) could lead to the identification of individuals rather than on whether those pieces of data working in combination with other information could assist in such identification.”  Regarding the public interest in disclosure, the court notes that plaintiff’s “intent to evaluate [defendant]‘s administration of various benefit programs fits within FOIA’s goal of ‘shed[ding] light on an agency’s performance of its statutory duties,’” but plaintiff “fails to satisfactorily articulate how the withheld data aids his pursuits.”  Therefore, the court is “convinced that any interest the public may have in the withheld data is sufficiently outweighed by the privacy interests that would be compromised by such disclosure.”
  • Attorney’s Fees:  The court affirms the district court’s denial of plaintiff’s request for attorney’s fees because plaintiff “did not ‘substantially prevail[ ]‘ in his opposition to [defendant]‘s summary judgment motion,” and, therefore, “is not entitled to attorney’s fees connected with that endeavor.”  The court also “decline[s] to explore” plaintiff’s argument that “he is entitled to the fees associated with filing his complaint . . . because . . . although [defendant] acknowledged [plaintiff's] requests for information within the timeframe outlined in section 552(a)(6)(A), [defendant] failed to communicate its determinations regarding disclosure within that timeframe,” and, therefore, “[t]he filing of the complaint ‘was necessary to obtain the information [plaintiff] sought’ and ‘had a ‘substantial causative effect’ on the ultimate receipt of [the] information’ that [defendant] did disclose.”  The court bases its denial to consider this argument on plaintiff’s failure “to comply with the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54 regarding claims for attorney’s fees.”  Despite the requirement for a motion in Rule 54, plaintiff “made no such motion” and, “even if [the court] reckon[s] this argument sufficient to comply with Rule 54′s requirement that ‘[a] claim for attorney’s fees … be made by motion,’ . . . we cannot ignore [plaintiff]‘s failure to ‘state the amount sought or provide a fair estimate of it.’”
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