Middle East Forum v. United States Department of Homeland Security

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA ____________________________________ ) MIDDLE EAST FORUM, ) ) Case No. 17-cv-0767 (RCL/GMH) Plaintiff, ) ) v. ) ) U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND ) SECURITY, ) ) Defendant. ) ____________________________________) MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER In this case, Plaintiff Middle East Forum seeks information from Defendant United States Department of Homeland Security (“Defendant” or “DHS”) pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552. The case was filed in April 2017, and Defendant received several extensions of time to answer (with Plaintiff’s consent) while it searched for documents responsive to Plaintiff’s requests. [Dkts. 8, 10, 12]. Beginning in August 2017, however, Plaintiff began to oppose such extensions, noting that the parties had been unable to agree on a timeline for production of documents. [Dkt. 15, ¶ 3; Dkt. 17, ¶ 3]. On December 20, 2017, the Honorable Royce C. Lamberth, United States District Judge, granted, nunc pro tunc, Defendant’s September 2017 motion seeking an extension of time to answer until October 30, 2017, granted Plaintiff’s motion for a status conference, and referred the case to the undersigned to “set a scheduling order . . . and give the government an opportunity to cure its current default posture.” [Dkt. 21]. On January 25, 2018, the status conference was held. Defendant represented that its searches had found over 27,000 potentially responsive documents, and proposed a schedule in which it would review 500 documents per month to determine whether they were responsive or subject to exemptions for disclosure. Minute Order dated Jan. 25, 2018. Plaintiff objected and sought a schedule requiring Defendant to review at least 1,000 documents per month. Id. Plaintiff further agreed to meet with Defendant to attempt to narrow the range of potentially responsive documents. Id. The Court ordered a status update on the meet and confer process, written submissions on the proposed review schedule, extended the time for Defendant to respond, nunc pro tunc, to January 25, 2018, and with consent of Plaintiff, stayed Defendant’s obligation to respond to the Complaint until “completion of its production of documents in this case, the production schedule for which will be set . . . after review of the [ordered] filings.” Id. On February 16, the parties reported that, pursuant to an agreement, the universe of potentially responsive documents had been narrowed to approximately 3,400, and Defendant anticipated that it would begin reviewing and processing those prioritized records beginning in March 2018. [Dkt. 25]. Defendant also submitted a declaration from James V.L.M. Holzer, the deputy chief FOIA Officer for the DHS Privacy Office (“DHS Privacy”)—which is responsible for processing the requests at issue here—explaining the agency’s staffing and workload.1 According to Mr. Holzer, DHS Privacy has a FOIA staff of approximately 15 individuals (including management personnel), and was responsible for almost 3,000 FOIA requests between 2013 and 2016, approximately 1,200 of which were complex requests. [Dkt. 26-1, ¶¶ 9–11]. In 2017, DHS Privacy received approximately 1,350 FOIA requests (representing an 87% increase from ...

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