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Rojas v. Federal Aviation Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 4, 2017

Jorge Alejandro Rojas, Plaintiff,
Federal Aviation Administration, et al., Defendants.


          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge

         Pending before the court is Defendant Federal Aviation Administration's (“FAA”) Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 12). For the reasons below, the Court grants the motion in part and denies the motion in part.


         Between August 2015 and February 2016, Plaintiff Jorge Rojas filed at least six Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests with Defendant Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). As a general theme, the FOIA requests concern FAA's February 2014 policy change for hiring Air Traffic Control Specialists. The National Black Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees (“NBCFAE”) lobbied for certain aspects of the new hiring policy. As part of this change, the FAA no longer formally preferred students participating in specified college programs under the Qualified Applicant Register. This policy change negatively impacted Mr. Rojas's application to work as an Air Traffic Controller.

         Mr. Rojas filed a complaint in Federal Court seeking an order against the FAA to produce the requested records. (Doc. 1). The FAA subsequently filed this Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 12).


         I. Legal Standard

         A. Summary Judgment

         The Court grants summary judgment when the movant “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Substantive law determines which facts are material, and “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The moving party bears the burden to show that there are no genuine disputes of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         In the FOIA context, courts review an agency's decision whether or not to disclose de novo. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); see also Louis v. United States Dep't of Labor, 419 F.3d 970, 977 (9th Cir. 2005) (de novo review “requir[es] no deference to the agency's determination or rationale regarding disclosures”). However, courts “accord substantial weight to an affidavit of an agency concerning the agency's determination as to technical feasibility . . . and reproducibility.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). If the FOIA dispute presents a genuine issue of material fact, courts proceed to a bench trial or adversary hearing. Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. Food & Drug Admin., 836 F.3d 987, 990 (9th Cir. 2016).

         B. FOIA Review

         Upon proper request, federal agencies must disclose records to a member of the public. 5 U.S.C. § 552. Nine categories of records are exempt from disclosure. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). The government has the burden of demonstrating that an exemption applies. Shannahan v. I.R.S., 672 F.3d 1142, 1148 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing Lahr v. Nat'l Transp. Safety Bd., 569 F.3d 964, 973 (9th Cir. 2009)). When responding to a FOIA request, the government must provide “tailored reasons” to justify withholding, and “may not respond with boilerplate or conclusory statements.” Shannahan, 672 F.3d at 1148 (citing Wiener v. F.B.I., 943 F.2d 972, 978-79 (9th Cir. 1991)).

         At issue in this case are Exemptions 6, 7(A), 7(C), and Glomar.

         1. Exemption 6

         FOIA does not require federal agencies to disclose personnel files when disclosing them would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). Courts first evaluate whether disclosure implicates a privacy interest that is nontrivial or more than de minimis. Yonemoto v. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 686 F.3d 681, 693 (9th Cir. 2012). Then, if the privacy interest in nontrivial, the court balances the public interest against the privacy interest. Courts weigh these interests with a strong presumption in favor of disclosure. Id. (citations omitted).

         Case law gives several definitions of nontrivial privacy interests. A nontrivial disclosure is an impermissible public intrusion that violates the common law or cultural traditions. Cameranesi v. U.S. Dep't of Def., 856 F.3d 626, 638 (9th Cir. 2017) (citations omitted). A nontrivial disclosure impacts people's control of information about themselves. Id. (citations omitted). A nontrivial disclosure subjects individuals to possible embarrassment, harassment, or the risk of mistreatment. Id. (citations omitted).

         Public interest must be “more specific than having the information for its own sake.” Yonemoto, 686 F.3d at 694 (quotation omitted). Public interest should show an agency's performance of its statutory duties or informs citizens about actual government operations. Id. at 693 (citations omitted). Personnel information that “reveals little or nothing about an agency's own conduct is not the type of information to which FOIA permits access.” Cameranesi, 856 F.3d at 640 (quotation omitted). Courts do not consider the FOIA requester's personal interest to obtain the information ...

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