University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
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Case Name Leopold v. U.S. Department of Justice NS-DC-0148
Docket / Court 1:19-cv-01278 ( D.D.C. )
Additional Docket(s) 19-cv-1626  [ 19-1626 ]  District of DC (U.S.)
State/Territory District of Columbia
Case Type(s) National Security
Attorney Organization Loevy & Loevy
Case Summary
On May 2, 2019, Buzzfeed News and one of its reporters filed a complaint under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI. The complaint stated that the plaintiffs had filed an initial FOIA ... read more >
On May 2, 2019, Buzzfeed News and one of its reporters filed a complaint under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI. The complaint stated that the plaintiffs had filed an initial FOIA request with the DOJ on March 21, 2019 seeking the following information on an expedited timeline:
Copies of any and all records, which includes but is not limited to FBI 302s, emails, memos, letters, charts, used by the Office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller during the drafting and preparation of its FINAL REPORT [emphasis in original] relating to the Office’s investigation into: any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and (ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and (iii) any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).
The plaintiffs alleged that the DOJ refused to comply with this request or provide any responsive records. The plaintiffs filed subsequent FOIA requests for component documents of the initial request, and alleged that none of these were fulfilled:
  • A March 25 FOIA request for the subpoenas and warrants used by the Mueller investigation;
  • A March 25 FOIA request for "all documents and records" maintained by the Special Counsel's office during this investigation;
  • A March 27 FOIA request for interview reports (also known as FBI 302s) used by the Mueller investigation;
  • A March 27 FOIA request for all non-investigative communications used by the Mueller investigation team; and
  • An April 3 FOIA request for summaries written by the Mueller investigation team.
Loevy & Loevy and other private counsel represented the plaintiffs. The case was initially assigned to Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.

A June 15, 2019 status report showed that the defendants attempted to narrow the scope of the plaintiffs' FOIA requests, but the plaintiffs refused to modify their requests. The status report stated that the DOJ would have to process over 19 billion pages of data in order to comply with the request, and that the DOJ anticipated completing a preliminary review by September 26, 2019.

Given the large volume of documents affected, the defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings on August 27, arguing that the document request was unduly large and several of the FOIA requests were impermissibly vague.

The case was reassigned to Judge Reggie Walton on September 4, 2019. On September 5, the DOJ filed a motion to consolidate this case with 19-cv-1626 in the same District Court; that case (also before Judge Walton) was another FOIA case requesting the 302 forms from the Mueller investigation. Judge Walton issued an order granting the consolidation of the cases on October 3, 2019. Given the multiple FOIA complaints on this specific document type, Judge Walton issued another order on November 11 directing the DOJ to prioritize the review of the 302 forms at the pace of 500 pages per month.

On November 3, 2019, Buzzfeed published an article releasing the contents of the first tranche of documents that the DOJ gave them as part of this FOIA request. This document set highlighted that the 2016 campaign was pleased with the release of Hillary Clinton's email tranche, initially falsely attributing it to a Ukrainian hack of DNC headquarters, and noting a campaign-wide effort to prevent the candidate from discussing Russia-related issues.

On November 22, 2019, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, arguing that the November 11 order should not put a stay on processing of certain other document types, the non-public records and the summaries. The plaintiffs argued that, since the DOJ already agreed to expedited processing of these documents, the stay should not impact this processing. Judge Walton issued an order on November 28 granting the motion with regard to the summaries but not for the non-public records; the order did not provide any reasoning for this decision. He modified this order slightly in a December 16 order, which directed the DOJ to release the 302 forms and narratives that it released to Congress to the plaintiffs without further delay.

Buzzfeed publicized the second tranche of documents it received from the DOJ in a December 2, 2019 article. This tranche of documents focused on the early days of the Trump White House, when Paul Manafort was facing criminal charges and FBI director James Comey was fired. The documents emphasized the reactions of various White House officials, who were initially hopeful that the "Russia thing" would be over soon.

Buzzfeed released the third tranche of documents it received from the DOJ in a January 2, 2020 article. These documents focused on the structure of the Trump organization and the Trump White House, referencing Michael Cohen's interactions with Eastern European and Central Asian counterparts in creating deals for the Trump Organization. The documents also shed light into staffing the Trump White House and showed that Fox News anchor Sean Hannity had significant access to daily goings on at the White House. Buzzfeed updated this release in a January 17 article, providing more detail on both findings.

The plaintiffs filed a status report on January 7, 2020, stating that while the defendants had released the proper documents, the documents contained redactions of information that was already public in other releases. They also asked the court to expedite processing of the 302 forms, saying that, at the current pace, the DOJ would not complete processing of the forms until a few days before the 2020 presidential election. The plaintiffs argued that it would be in the public interest to get these documents at a quicker pace in order to provide voters with a full picture of Russian interference in the election. The defendants also filed a status report on the same day, noting that the plaintiffs could contest redactions on the summary judgment stage, not the status report stage, and defended their use of FOIA Exception 5 to redact the information. The defendants also argued that the current pace of document review sufficiently protected the public interest while maintaining security of redacted information. On February 8, Judge Walton issued an order directing the defendants to process 800 documents per month, speeding up the timeline.

Buzzfeed released another document tranche in a February 3, 2020 article. This tranche of documents focused on the internal perceptions of White House officials on the Comey firing and news articles shortly after they took office speculating on the 2016 campaign's ties to Russia.

Responding to the defendants' status report, the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment contesting the use of Exception 5 in the defendants' releases on February 3, 2020, arguing that the defendants unfairly redacted information in their releases that was publicly released in the Mueller report. The defendants contested this allegation in their own motion for summary judgment filed on February 24, arguing that the redactions protected privileged work product and Presidential communications. They also argued that the Mueller report did not disclose the redacted information.

Buzzfeed's March 3 article releasing new documents from the FOIA request largely built on the previous releases, showing the importance of Sean Hannity in White House inner circles and general unease from the interview targets surrounding the Trump campaign's events with many politically connected Russians present.

Judge Walton issued a minute order on March 10, 2020 dismissing the motion for judgment on the pleadings from August 27 of the year prior; the issue was essentially moot since the parties were processing the requested documents.

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted processing of documents in this case. An April 13 status report showed that document processors were deemed nonessential employees and document processing had halted. An April 27 status report stated that processing would resume on April 29, and a May 27 status report reflected this. Judge Walton ordered the parties to return to the 800 documents per month processing schedule on June 9, 2020.

After processing resumed, Buzzfeed released another document tranche in a June 30, 2020 article. These documents contained largely the same information as the previous ones, focusing on the promotion of unfounded rumors surrounding the Clinton email releases and internal dysfunction on campaign staffing decisions.

Beside containing the internal campaign staffing drama, Buzzfeed's August 3 document release included interview summaries from high ranking White House officials Jared Kushner and K.T. McFarland, though these interviews were heavily redacted due to "ongoing investigations." Buzzfeed's September 1 document release confirmed that at least one investigation into the Trump campaign was ongoing, and included interviews with campaign staff that showed the 2016 campaign had a diffuse and poorly organized campaign finance system.

After reviewing the redactions in the released documents, Judge Walton issued an opinion on the outstanding cross motions for summary judgment on September 3, 2020. 2020 WL 5253897. He agreed with the defendants, saying that the redactions did represent privileged work product and Presidential communications, and added that the Mueller report did not publicize redacted information.

Buzzfeed's October 1 document release confirmed that the Trump 2016 campaign was in dire financial straits and was seeking large donations to subsidize a social media program in the last days of the 2016 campaign. These documents also discussed the circumstances surrounding the firings of Roger Stone and Paul Manafort.

On October 8, 2020, the plaintiffs filed a motion asking the court to further expedite document processing in light of the upcoming 2020 Presidential election. Judge Walton issued an order the following day directing the DOJ to make a "good faith effort" to release the documents before the election.

Buzzfeed released an additional document tranche in an October 3 article. These documents discussed Paul Manfort's outreach to politically connected Russian nationals. This document tranche also included documents from Michael Flynn's interview with the FBI, but the document was almost completely redacted.

On December 7, 2020, Judge Walton ordered the defendants to re-process 302 documents pertaining to Michael Flynn, given the President's pardon of Flynn. Buzzfeed received these documents on January 15, 2021 and published an article about their contents. The documents discussed Flynn's interactions with foreign contacts, both Russian and Turkish, and how he communicated these contacts to the Trump White House and campaign.

Though the Buzzfeed articles imply that the DOJ has completed document processing, the case is not yet closed.

Ellen Aldin - 01/17/2021


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Issues and Causes of Action
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Issues
General
Confidentiality
Record-keeping
Records Disclosure
Terrorism/Post 9-11 issues
Plaintiff Type
Closely-held (for profit) corporation
Private Plaintiff
Causes of Action Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552
Defendant(s) Federal Bureau of Investigation
U.S. Department of Justice
Plaintiff Description A reporter at Buzzfeed News and Buzzfeed News
Indexed Lawyer Organizations Loevy & Loevy
Class action status sought No
Class action status outcome Not sought
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Plaintiff
Public Int. Lawyer No
Nature of Relief Document/information produced
Source of Relief Litigation
Order Duration 2019 - n/a
Filed 05/02/2019
Case Ongoing Yes
Court Docket(s)
D.D.C.
01/17/2020
1:19-cv-01278-RBW
NS-DC-0148-9000.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
D.D.C.
07/15/2019
Joint Status Report [ECF# 20]
NS-DC-0148-0003.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
08/27/2019
Memorandum in Support of Defendant's Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings [ECF# 25-1]
NS-DC-0148-0004.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
10/03/2019
Order [ECF# 33]
NS-DC-0148-0005.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
11/19/2019
Order [ECF# 39]
NS-DC-0148-0006.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
11/28/2019
Order [ECF# 47]
NS-DC-0148-0008.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
12/16/2019
Order [ECF# 49]
NS-DC-0148-0009.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
01/07/2020
Plaintiffs Jason Leopold's Buzzfeed, Inc.'s and Cable News Network, Inc.'s Status Report for the Court and Response to DOJ's January 2, 2020 and January 3, 2020 Productions [ECF# 50]
NS-DC-0148-0010.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
01/07/2020
Defendant's Status Report and Response to the Court's Order [ECF# 51]
NS-DC-0148-0011.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
02/03/2020
Memorandum in Support of Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [ECF# 59]
NS-DC-0148-0012.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
05/02/2020
Complaint [ECF# 1]
NS-DC-0148-0002.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
09/03/2020
Memorandum Opinion [ECF# 86] (487 F.Supp.3d 1)
NS-DC-0148-0013.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
10/09/2020
Order [ECF# 104]
NS-DC-0148-0015.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D.D.C.
12/07/2020
Order [ECF# 119]
NS-DC-0148-0016.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
not recorded
01/15/2021
Re: FOIPA Request No.: 1432673-000
NS-DC-0148-0001.pdf | Detail
show all people docs
Judges Walton, Reggie B. (FISC, D.D.C.) show/hide docs
NS-DC-0148-0005 | NS-DC-0148-0006 | NS-DC-0148-0008 | NS-DC-0148-0009 | NS-DC-0148-0013 | NS-DC-0148-0015 | NS-DC-0148-0016 | NS-DC-0148-9000
Plaintiff's Lawyers Burday, Joshua Hart (Illinois) show/hide docs
NS-DC-0148-0002 | NS-DC-0148-0003
Hunt, Joseph H. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
NS-DC-0148-0003
Tobin, Charles D. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
NS-DC-0148-0010 | NS-DC-0148-0012 | NS-DC-0148-9000
Topic, Matthew Vincent (Illinois) show/hide docs
NS-DC-0148-0002 | NS-DC-0148-0003 | NS-DC-0148-0010 | NS-DC-0148-0012 | NS-DC-0148-9000
Wayne, Merrick Jason (Illinois) show/hide docs
NS-DC-0148-9000
Defendant's Lawyers Davis, Ethan P. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
NS-DC-0148-0011
Enlow, Courtney (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
NS-DC-0148-0003 | NS-DC-0148-0004 | NS-DC-0148-0011 | NS-DC-0148-9000
Mooppan, Hashim M. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
NS-DC-0148-0004
Shapiro, Elizabeth J. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
NS-DC-0148-0003 | NS-DC-0148-0004 | NS-DC-0148-0011 | NS-DC-0148-9000
Other Lawyers Kelley, Matthew E. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
NS-DC-0148-0010 | NS-DC-0148-0012 | NS-DC-0148-9000

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