National Public Radio Inc. v. Federal Emergency Management Agency

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, INC., et al. Plaintiffs, Civil Action No. 17-91 (BAH) v. Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY, et al., Defendants. MEMORANDUM OPINION The plaintiffs, National Public Radio, Inc. (“NPR”) and Robert Benincasa, a journalist at NPR, seek, under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552, records from the defendants, Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), regarding FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (“HMGP”). Pls.’ Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. & Opp’n Defs.’ Mot. Summ. J. (“Pls.’ Opp’n”) at 1, ECF No. 9-1. FEMA produced 66 documents in response to the plaintiffs’ request, but withheld records relating to the names of HMGP sellers, as well as addresses and GIS coordinates of properties FEMA acquired through the program. The defendants invoked FOIA Exemption 6, which protects “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6), to justify these withholdings. After unsuccessfully appealing the defendants’ withholdings, the plaintiffs filed this suit. The parties have now filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Defs.’ Mot. Summ. J. (“Defs.’ Mot.”), ECF No. 8; Pls.’ Cross-Mot. Summ. J. (“Pls.’ Mot.”), ECF No. 9. For the reasons stated below, the plaintiffs’ motion is granted and the defendants’ motion is denied. 1 I. BACKGROUND Congress authorized the HMGP to “substantially reduce the risk of future damage, hardship, loss, or suffering in any area affected by a major disaster.” 42 U.S.C. § 5170c(a). The program provides grants to states, Indian tribes, and private nonprofit organizations with hazard- mitigation plans that serve the program’s goal of providing cost-effective risk reduction in designated disaster areas. See id.; 44 C.F.R. §§ 206.433, 206.434(a). FEMA administers the HMGP in conjunction with states, tribes, local governments, and private nonprofit organizations. 42 U.S.C. § 5170c(b)(1); 44 C.F.R. § 206.434(a). A permissible use of HMGP funds is the purchase of flood-prone properties, subject to certain requirements. 42 U.S.C. § 5170c(b)(1) (authorizing hazard mitigation assistance in connection with flooding); see 44 C.F.R. §§ 80.11(a) (requiring voluntary participation of the property’s seller and restricting the use of eminent domain), 80.11(d) (requiring the applicant to retain full property interest), 80.17(c)(1) (requiring FEMA to pay either pre-disaster or current market value), 80.17(c)(4) (allowing FEMA to pay pre-disaster value only to a property owner who “own[ed] the property at the time of the relevant event” and is “a National of the United States or a qualified alien”). States and tribes thus may use grant funds to purchase properties that have been impacted by natural disasters. 42 U.S.C. § 5170c(b)(1). FEMA then publicizes, on its website, certain information related to the purchase. Pls.’ Mot., Attach. 3, Decl. of Robert Benincasa (“NPR Decl.”) ¶ 8, ECF No. 9-3. Since 2000, the HMGP has distributed approximately $750 million to states and tribes that has been used to purchase over 10,000 properties, none of which has FEMA publicly identified by ...

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