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Case TitleJUDICIAL WATCH, INC. v. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
DistrictDistrict of Columbia
CityWashington, DC
Case Number1:2017cv02682
Date Filed2017-12-14
Date Closed2019-03-11
JudgeJudge Christopher R. Cooper
PlaintiffJUDICIAL WATCH, INC.
Case DescriptionJudicial Watch submitted a FOIA request to the Department of Justice for records concerning FBI Supervisor Peter Strzok's assignment to the special counsel's investigation and his subsequent reassignment. The agency acknowledged receipt of the request, but after hearing nothing further from the agency, Judicial Watch filed suit.
Complaint issues: Failure to respond within statutory time limit, Adequacy - Search, Litigation - Vaughn index, Litigation - Attorney's fees

DefendantU.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
Documents
Docket
Complaint
Complaint attachment 1
Complaint attachment 2
Complaint attachment 3
Complaint attachment 4
Opinion/Order [15]
FOIA Project Annotation: Judge Christopher Cooper has ruled that the FBI improperly narrowed a request from Judicial Watch for records concerning the assignment of former FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok to work on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and his subsequent reassignment to Human Resources. In response to Judicial Watch's request, the FBI searched Strzok's email account for records containing the terms "assignment," "reassignment," and "appointment" in conjunction with the phrase "special counsel." This search yielded 19 responsive pages and attachments and the FBI disclosed 13 pages and withheld three entirely. Judicial Watch challenged the adequacy of the agency's search, arguing that its search was unreasonably narrow. Cooper agreed, pointing out that "this Court has noticed a pattern of. . .myopia plaguing FOIA reviewers in some of our federal agencies." Turning to the FBI's search in this case, Cooper noted that "here too, the FBI's search was overly cramped. Notwithstanding that Judicial Watch's requested referred to Mueller by name, the Bureau search only for the term 'special counsel.' But surely one would expect that Agent Strzok and other FBI personnel might use the Special Counsel's name " 'Mueller' " rather than his title when discussing Strzok's assignment to the Russian investigation, especially in informal emails. Another logical variation on 'special counsel' is its commonly used acronym 'SCO,' which appears to be used within the Special Counsel's Office itself, as reflected by the documents that the FBI uncovered and produced to Judicial Watch. Tellingly, the government used the acronym 'SCO' in its briefing in this case. The FBI's failure to search for these obvious synonyms and logical variations ran afoul of its obligation to construe FOIA requests liberally and conduct a search reasonably likely to produce all responsive documents." Cooper found the agency had improperly narrowed its search for emails by only searching Strzok's personal email account. Cooper observed that "surely, however, other people within the Bureau are likely to have discussed the assignment or reassignment via email without having shared those discussions with Strzok." Cooper pointed out that Strzok was a highly-regarded agent who had recently worked on two high-profile investigations. He noted that "common sense suggests that some of this discussion likely took place in emails exchanged by Agent Strzok's supervisors and other FBI officials involved in those decisions." Questioning the agency's decision to limit its search to Strzok's email account only, Cooper indicated that "because one would naturally expect others to have engaged in those communications, including without looping in Strzok, it was not reasonable (let alone eminently so) to search only Agent Strzok's emails." The FBI supported the adequacy of searching only Strzok's emails by explaining that it found no leads during its search that would have suggested a need to search elsewhere. But Cooper observed that "the purported absence of 'leads' in Agent Strzok's emails does not suggest the absence of other responsive emails: it comes as no surprise that colleagues who communicated with Strzok about the assignment might not indicate to him that they were communicating with others about the same topic." Cooper also found fault with the agency's decision not to search for text messages. Cooper noted that "the Court disagrees, at least with respect to Agent Strzok's documented use of text messages. Given that use, it strikes the Court as reasonably likely that he discussed his assignment to the Special Counsel's Office in text messages " which again is the standard for assessing an agency's selection of search locations."
Issues: Search - Reasonableness of search
User-contributed Documents
 
Docket Events (Hide)
Date FiledDoc #Docket Text

2017-12-141COMPLAINT against U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE ( Filing fee $ 400 receipt number 0090-5249114) filed by JUDICIAL WATCH, INC.. (Attachments: # 1 Civil Cover Sheet, # 2 Summons (U.S. Attorney for DC), # 3 Summons (U.S. Attorney General), # 4 Summons (U.S. Department of Justice))(Peterson, James) (Entered: 12/14/2017)
2017-12-142LCvR 7.1 CERTIFICATE OF DISCLOSURE of Corporate Affiliations and Financial Interests by JUDICIAL WATCH, INC. (Peterson, James) (Entered: 12/14/2017)
2017-12-14Case Assigned to Judge Christopher R. Cooper. (zsth) (Entered: 12/15/2017)
2017-12-153SUMMONS (3) Issued Electronically as to U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, U.S. Attorney and U.S. Attorney General (Attachments: # 1 Notice and Consent)(zsth) (Entered: 12/15/2017)
2018-01-054RETURN OF SERVICE/AFFIDAVIT of Summons and Complaint Executed as to the United States Attorney. Date of Service Upon United States Attorney on 12/26/2017. ( Answer due for ALL FEDERAL DEFENDANTS by 1/25/2018.), RETURN OF SERVICE/AFFIDAVIT of Summons and Complaint Executed on United States Attorney General. Date of Service Upon United States Attorney General 12/26/17., RETURN OF SERVICE/AFFIDAVIT of Summons and Complaint Executed. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE served on 12/26/2017 (Attachments: # 1 Exhibit 1 (U.S. Attorney for DC), # 2 Exhibit 2 (U.S. Attorney General), # 3 Exhibit 3 (U.S. Department of Justice))(Peterson, James) (Entered: 01/05/2018)
2018-02-015MOTION for Extension of Time to File Answer Nunc Pro Tunc by U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (Attachments: # 1 Exhibit Proposed Answer, # 2 Text of Proposed Order Proposed Order)(Sus, Nikhel) (Entered: 02/01/2018)
2018-03-12MINUTE ORDER granting 5 Defendant's Motion for Enlargement of Time to Answer Complaint Nunc Pro Tunc. Defendant's proposed Answer, attached as an exhibit to Defendants 5 motion, is hereby entered on the docket and deemed timely filed. Signed by Judge Christopher R. Cooper on 3/12/2018. (lccrc1) (Entered: 03/12/2018)
2018-03-26MINUTE ORDER: Before the Court in this FOIA case are a complaint and an answer. It is hereby ORDERED that the parties promptly confer and file a joint proposed schedule for briefing or disclosure by April 9, 2018. Signed by Judge Christopher R. Cooper on 3/26/2018. (lccrc1) (Entered: 03/26/2018)
2018-03-26Set/Reset Deadlines: Joint Proposed Briefing Schedule due by 4/9/2018 (lsj) (Entered: 03/26/2018)
2018-04-036Joint STATUS REPORT & Proposed Schedule by U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE. (Sus, Nikhel) (Entered: 04/03/2018)
2018-04-05MINUTE ORDER: In light of the 6 Joint Status Report and Proposed Schedule, it is ORDERED that the parties' proposed schedule is adopted. Defendant shall complete production of any non-exempt responsive documents by May 8, 2018. Defendant shall file any motion for summary judgment by June 13, 2018. Plaintiff shall file any cross-motion for summary judgment and opposition by July 13, 2018. Defendant shall file its reply and opposition by August 3, 2018. Plaintiff shall file its reply by August 24, 2018. Signed by Judge Christopher R. Cooper on 4/5/2018. (lccrc1) (Entered: 04/05/2018)
2018-04-05Set/Reset Deadlines: Summary Judgment motions due by 6/13/2018. Response to Motion for Summary Judgment due by 7/13/2018. Reply to Motion for Summary Judgment due by 8/3/2018. Replies due by 8/24/2018. (lsj) (Entered: 04/05/2018)
2018-06-137MOTION for Summary Judgment by U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (Attachments: # 1 Declaration Declaration of David M. Hardy, # 2 Text of Proposed Order)(Sus, Nikhel) (Entered: 06/13/2018)
2018-07-128Consent MOTION for Extension of Time to File Opposition and Reset Briefing Schedule by JUDICIAL WATCH, INC. (Attachments: # 1 Text of Proposed Order)(Peterson, James) (Entered: 07/12/2018)
2018-07-209Memorandum in opposition to re 7 MOTION for Summary Judgment (with response to Statement of Facts) filed by JUDICIAL WATCH, INC.. (Attachments: # 1 Exhibit A, # 2 Exhibit B, # 3 Text of Proposed Order)(Peterson, James) (Entered: 07/20/2018)
2018-07-2010Cross MOTION for Summary Judgment (with Statement of Facts) by JUDICIAL WATCH, INC. (Attachments: # 1 Exhibit A, # 2 Exhibit B, # 3 Text of Proposed Order)(Peterson, James) (Entered: 07/20/2018)
2018-08-1011REPLY to opposition to motion re 7 MOTION for Summary Judgment (with Response to Statement of Facts) filed by U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE. (Attachments: # 1 Declaration Second Hardy Declaration)(Sus, Nikhel) (Entered: 08/10/2018)
2018-08-1012Memorandum in opposition to re 10 Cross MOTION for Summary Judgment (with Statement of Facts) (with Response to Statement of Facts) filed by U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE. (Attachments: # 1 Declaration Second Hardy Declaration)(Sus, Nikhel) (Entered: 08/10/2018)
2018-08-2313NOTICE OF SUBSTITUTION OF COUNSEL by Dena Michal Roth on behalf of U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE Substituting for attorney Nikhel Sus (Roth, Dena) (Entered: 08/23/2018)
2018-08-2414REPLY to opposition to motion re 10 Cross MOTION for Summary Judgment (with Statement of Facts) filed by JUDICIAL WATCH, INC.. (Peterson, James) (Entered: 08/24/2018)
2019-03-1115MEMORANDUM OPINION denying 7 Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment; granting 10 Plaintiff's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by Judge Christopher R. Cooper on 3/11/2019. (lccrc1) (Entered: 03/11/2019)
2019-03-1116ORDER re: 15 Memorandum Opinion. Signed by Judge Christopher R. Cooper on 3/11/2019. (lccrc1) (Entered: 03/11/2019)
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by FOIA Project Staff
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