University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
new search
page permalink
Case Name Prison Legal News v. Lappin PC-DC-0021
Docket / Court 1:05-cv-01812-RBW ( D.D.C. )
State/Territory District of Columbia
Case Type(s) Prison Conditions
Special Collection Prison Legal News
Case Summary
On September 13, 2005, Prison Legal News (PLN), a non-profit legal journal devoted to reporting news and litigation concerning detention facilities, filed this action against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. PLN sought declaratory and injunctive ... read more >
On September 13, 2005, Prison Legal News (PLN), a non-profit legal journal devoted to reporting news and litigation concerning detention facilities, filed this action against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. PLN sought declaratory and injunctive relief for the defendant's refusal to produce documents requested by PLN under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or grant a fee waiver for the document requests. The case was assigned to Judge Reggie B. Walton.

PLN had submitted a FOIA request to the BOP on August 6, 2003, seeking documents related to litigation expenses incurred by the BOP between January 1, 1996 and July 31, 2003. In conjunction with the information request, PLN also asked the BOP to waive all associated search and duplication fees, citing the FOIA provision that required a waiver where "disclosure of the information is in the public interest. . . and not primarily in the commercial interest of the requestor." The BOP refused to grant the fee waiver, claiming that PLN had failed to explain how the information request would be of public interest, and that the request was overbroad. PLN appealed the BOP's decision to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Information and Privacy, which concluded that PLN's request for a fee waiver had properly been denied. Specifically, PLN did not demonstrate that the information would be communicated to the public and the release of the requested information would not enhance the public's understanding—especially considering that some of the requested documents were already publicly available.

After the plaintiff began this action, the defendant filed for summary judgment on November 30, 2005. PLN filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on December 30, 2005. On June 26, 2006, the court concluded that the plaintiff had sufficiently established that disclosure of the requested information was in the public interest because it was likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government. The court also found that the plaintiff had demonstrated its intent and ability to disseminate the information to the relevant public. The defendant stipulated to pay $48,709.72 in attorney's fees and costs.

On February 15, 2007, the court first ordered the defendant to process the plaintiff's FOIA request by March 20, 2007. But the defendant continued to request extensions of time to comply. PLN did not oppose the extensions until September 2007, when it noted to the court that compliance was already long overdue.

The defendant eventually produced approximately 11,000 pages in response to the plaintiff’s FOIA request, but 2,993 of these pages contained redactions. The defendant stated that these redactions were allowed under specific FOIA exemptions, but the plaintiff claimed that the defendant’s justification was insufficient. PLN filed for judgment on March 28, 2008 and a court order for the defendant to properly comply with the request. The defendants filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. On March 26, 2009, the court ordered the defendant to either search for the records sought by the plaintiff or submit an affidavit indicating that the documents could be properly withheld under FOIA exemptions.

On February 25, 2011, the court granted in part and denied in part both parties' motions for summary judgment. It agreed that the defendant had adequately searched for the requested documents, but agreed with the plaintiff that the defendant had not sufficiently justified its use of FOIA exemptions to redact or withhold information. The court requested that the defendant provide additional explanations about the relative weight of competing public and private interests at stake in a sufficiently detailed manner to enable the court to assess whether the exemptions were properly asserted. The court issued a schedule for the defendant to bring itself into compliance with the requirements of Vaughn v. Rosen. A Vaughn index is an itemized, detailed justification of a party’s claims that documents or portions thereof are exempt from FOIA. 484 F.2d 820.

In May 2011, the defendant produced a new Vaughn index, which the plaintiff claimed did not sufficiently justify the redactions. In response, the defendant provided the plaintiff with newly redacted documents, and a second supplemental Vaughn index. The plaintiff was still unsatisfied, because the documents contained redactions of individual names, job titles, department descriptions, work addresses, dates of employment, dates of events and entire sentences of text. In a memorandum opinion issued on July 23, 2013, the court ruled in favor of the defendant: it held that the defendant had properly relied on an exemption that allows information to be redacted or withheld if there is a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy that is not outweighed by the public interest. At this time, the case was closed.

The plaintiff appealed to the DC Circuit Court on August 22, 2013 (USCA Case Number 12-5269). PLN argued that the district court erred in balancing the individual's privacy interest against the public interest in disclosure. On August 5, 2015, the Court of Appeals held that the defendant had not sufficiently justified its redactions; the court reversed and remanded the district court’s decision. The court concluded that the defendant had combined the privacy interests of all individuals whose information was redacted into categories based on the type of document within which the individual's information appeared. The court found several problems with this categorical methodology: because the categories were centered on specific types of filed documents, they included a wide range of claims covering various degrees of privacy interests. But these privacy interests could be different depending on the claim. The categorical approach failed to distinguish between redacting the identity of the alleged victim and the identity of the alleged perpetrator, and the defendant made no effort to distinguish between the privacy interests of employees who were victims and those who were perpetrators. The court also found that the defendant redacted inconsistently; the names of some alleged perpetrators were redacted while others were not. For all these reasons, the Court of Appeals remanded the case, requiring the defendant to fashion a coherent catalogue of the documents still in dispute and instructing the district court to balance privacy and public interests in light of the defendant’s new submissions. 787 F.3d 1142.

On April 3, 2017, the district court approved a settlement. The parties stipulated that the defendant had acceptably produced the documents originally requested by the plaintiff and the defendant agreed to pay $420,000 in the plaintiff's attorneys’ fees and costs. The plaintiff agreed to forever discharge, release, and withdraw any claims of access to records or portions of records previously made in the lawsuit. The case was dismissed and is now closed.

Kristen Sagar - 06/26/2009
Esther Vinarov - 11/28/2018

compress summary

- click to show/hide ALL -
Issues and Causes of Action
click to show/hide detail
Content of Injunction
Required disclosure
Records Disclosure
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Type of Facility
Causes of Action Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552
Defendant(s) Federal Bureau of Prisons
Plaintiff Description A non-profit legal journal devoted to reporting news and litigation concerning detention facilities.
Class action status sought No
Class action status granted No
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Plaintiff
Public Int. Lawyer No
Nature of Relief Attorneys fees
Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement
Source of Relief Litigation
Form of Settlement Court Approved Settlement or Consent Decree
Filing Year 2005
Case Closing Year 2017
Case Ongoing No
Additional Resources
click to show/hide detail
  Civil Rights Injunctions Over Time: A Case Study of Jail and Prison Court Orders
N.Y.U. Law Review
Date: May 2006
By: Margo Schlanger (Washington University Faculty)
Citation: 81 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 550 (2006)
[ Detail ] [ PDF ] [ External Link ]

  Judicial Policy Making and the Modern State: How the Courts Reformed America's Prisons
Date: Jan. 1, 1998
By: Malcolm M. Feeley & Edward Rubin (UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law & Vanderbilt School of Law Faculty Faculty)
Citation: (1998)
[ Detail ]

  Prison Legal News Homepage
Prison Legal News
By: Prison Legal News
[ Detail ] [ External Link ]

1:05-cv-01812-RBW (D.D.C.)
PC-DC-0021-9000.pdf | Detail
Date: 04/03/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
Verified Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief to Obtain Freedom of Information Act Information
PC-DC-0021-0002.pdf | Detail
Date: 09/13/2005
Memorandum Opinion (436 F.Supp.2d 17) (D.D.C.)
PC-DC-0021-0001.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 06/26/2006
Order [re: Summary Judgment] (D.D.C.)
PC-DC-0021-0003.pdf | Detail
Date: 06/26/2006
Parties' Stipulation of Attorney's Fees and Costs Payable to Plaintiff and Order (D.D.C.)
PC-DC-0021-0004.pdf | Detail
Date: 08/17/2006
Defendant's Response to the Court's June 26, 2006 Order
PC-DC-0021-0005.pdf | Detail
Date: 08/29/2006
Plaintiff's Memorandum to Defendant's Latest Motion for a Further Enlargement of Time
PC-DC-0021-0006.pdf | Detail
Date: 09/12/2007
Order [ECF# 60] (603 F.Supp.2d 124) (D.D.C.)
PC-DC-0021-0007.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 03/26/2009
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Memorandum Opinion [ECF# 61] (D.D.C.)
PC-DC-0021-0008.pdf | Detail
Date: 03/26/2009
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order [ECF# 68] (D.D.C.)
PC-DC-0021-0009.pdf | Detail
Date: 02/25/2010
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order [ECF# 82] (780 F.Supp.2d 29) (D.D.C.)
PC-DC-0021-0010.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 02/25/2011
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Defendant's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment and Opposition to Plaintiff's Fifth Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF# 111]
PC-DC-0021-0014.pdf | Detail
Date: 04/25/2012
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order [ECF# 119] (D.D.C.)
PC-DC-0021-0012.pdf | Detail
Date: 07/23/2013
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Memorandum Opinion [ECF# 120] (954 F.Supp.2d 21) (D.D.C.)
PC-DC-0021-0013.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 07/23/2013
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Judges Walton, Reggie B. (FISC, D.D.C.)
PC-DC-0021-0001 | PC-DC-0021-0003 | PC-DC-0021-0004 | PC-DC-0021-0007 | PC-DC-0021-0009 | PC-DC-0021-0010 | PC-DC-0021-0012 | PC-DC-0021-0013 | PC-DC-0021-9000
Plaintiff's Lawyers Cook, Adam K (Vermont)
Elder, Edward J (Virginia)
PC-DC-0021-0002 | PC-DC-0021-0004 | PC-DC-0021-9000
Klimaski, James R (District of Columbia)
PC-DC-0021-0006 | PC-DC-0021-9000
London, Ronald G (District of Columbia)
Messineo, Carl L (District of Columbia)
Miller, Lynn Illene (District of Columbia)
Miller, Radhika M.S. (District of Columbia)
Verheyden-Hilliard, Mara E (District of Columbia)
Defendant's Lawyers Contreras, Rudolph (District of Columbia)
PC-DC-0021-0004 | PC-DC-0021-0005
Johnson, Wyneva (District of Columbia)
PC-DC-0021-0004 | PC-DC-0021-0005 | PC-DC-0021-0006 | PC-DC-0021-0014 | PC-DC-0021-9000
Machen, Ronald C (District of Columbia)
Van Horn, Daniel F (District of Columbia)
Wainstein, Kenneth L. (District of Columbia)
PC-DC-0021-0004 | PC-DC-0021-0005

- click to show/hide ALL -

new search
page permalink

- top of page -