Motions for Summary Judgment

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A motion for summary judgement is the most common mechanism by which FOIA cases are resolved. It is a pre-trial motion in which one party asserts that there is "no genuine dispute as to any material fact" and thus he is entitled to judgement in his favor.

Motions for summary judgment are governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Either the agency or the FOIA requester can file a motion for summary judgment. Alternatively, both parties can move for summary judgment.

If material facts are at issue or, though undisputed are susceptible to divergent inferences bearing upon an issue critical to disposition of the case, summary judgment is not available.[1].

Requester's Motion for Summary Judgment

Note that an agency's failure to respond to a FOIA request in a timely manner does not, of itself, justify an award of summary judgment to the requester.[2]

The requester must submit an affidavit outlining the material facts in relation to which there is no genuine dispute between the parties.

Rule 56(c)(4) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that the affidavit must be based upon the personal knowledge of the affiant, must demonstrate the affiant's competency to testify as to matters stated, and must set forth only facts that would be admissible in evidence.[3]

Agency's Motion for Summary Judgment

Courts have held that "summary judgment is available to a defendant agency where 'the agency proves that it has fully discharged its obligations under the FOIA, after the underlying facts and the inferences to be drawn from them are construed in the light most favorable to the FOIA requester.'"[4]

The agency's obligation under FOIA is to justify non-disclosure, and an agency will typically do this by submitting an affidavit to describe the information at issue and explain why it falls under a FOIA exemption. When the declarations provided by the agency are not sufficiently detailed, the motion for summary judgement will be denied. [5]

An agency's motion for summary judgment will also be rejected where the agency declarant's affidavits are conclusory (i.e. they do not demonstrate that there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact, but rather, they state legal arguments or conclusions). [6]

The affidavit or declaration of an agency official who is knowledgeable about the way in which information is processed and is familiar with the documents at issue has been found to satisfy the personal knowledge requirement outlined in Rule 56(c)(4) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[7] Likewise, where an agency's search is questioned, an affidavit of an agency employee responsible for coordinating the search efforts has been found to satisfy the personal knowledge requirement.[8].

Note that a requester who opposes an agency's motion for summary judgment must file an opposition. Failure to do so, once it is clear that he understands his responsibility to do so, will result in the assumption that the requester has conceded the agency's factual assertions. [9]

Recent district court cases regarding motions for summary judgment

Recent district court cases regarding this topic from TRAC's FOIA Project. Visit their issue search page for more options.

See Also

External Links


  1. Alyeska Pipeline Serv. v. EPA, 856 F.2d 309, 314 (D.C.Cir.1988)
  2. Jacobs v. BOP, 725 F. Supp. 2d 85, 89 (D.D.C. 2010)
  3. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4).
  4. Mo. Coal. v. U.S. Army Corp. of Eng'rs, 542 F.3d 1204, 1209 (8th Cir. 2008) (citing Miller v. Dep't of State, 779 F.2d 1378, 1382 (8th Cir. 1985))
  5. See, for example, Rein v. U.S. Patent & Trademark Office 55 F.3d 353, 367-71 (4th Cir. 2009); Lombard v. U.S. Dep't of State No. 11-2755, 2012 WL 3780455, at *2 (E.D. La. Aug. 31, 2012); Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. v. DOE 169 F.3d 16, 18 (D.C. Cir. 1999); Kamman v. IRS; 56 F.3d 46, 49 (9th Cir. 1995); Voinche v. FBI 46 F. Supp. 2d 26, 30 (D.D.C. 1999)
  6. Kensington Res. & Recovery v. HUD, 620 F. Supp. 2d 908, 909 n.1 (N.D. Ill. 2009); Callaway v. U.S. Dep't of Treasury, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 11941, at *5-6 (D.C. Cir. June 2, 2009) (per curiam)
  7. Adamowicz v. IRS, 402 App'x 648, 650 (2d Cir. 2010)
  8. Carney v. DOJ, 19 F.3d 807, 814 (2d Cir. 1994), aff'g in pertinent part, rev'g & remanding in part, No. 92-6204, slip op. at 12 (W.D.N.Y. Apr. 27, 1993)
  9. Augustus v. McHugh, 870 F. Supp. 2d 167, 171-73 (D.D.C. 2012); Davis v. DOJ, No. 09-0008, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69318 (D.D.C. Aug. 7, 2009)