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Emails Forwarded from Former Email Account to Current Email Account Deemed Duplicative re Response to FOIA Request

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Posted on March 29th, 2017

FOIA Search for EmailsCompetitive Enterprise Institute v. Office of Science and Technology Policy, Case No. 14-765 (District of Columbia, Mar. 13, 2017), is an action initiated against a governmental entity, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (“OSTP”).  In this action, the Plaintiff alleged that Defendant violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by failing to produce emails from the private email account of the Director of the OSTP, Dr. John Holdren.  FOIA requires government agencies to provide disclosure of documents responsive to FOIA requests by private citizens.  Agency records include both paper and electronic documents.

The email account in question was issued to Dr. Holdren by his former employer, Woods Hole Research Center (“Woods Hole”), a private research organization and non-governmental entity. Dr. Holdren used the Woods Hole email account until January 2014, which was many years after leaving Woods Hole.  Dr. Holdren occasionally used the Woods Hole account for emails related to his work activity with OSTP.  When he received emails at the Woods Hole account, he forwarded the emails to his OSTP account or copied OSTP on the correspondence, as required by departmental policy and Federal law.

Plaintiff made its request to OSTP for a FOIA search for emails in October 2013.  OSTP subsequently responded that it could not search the Woods Hole email account since the account was not under its control. Plaintiff argued that the emails were subject to FOIA regardless of their location. OSTP  interpreted the FOIA demand as requesting the emails that were copied or forwarded to the OSTP account, and thus conducted a search of Holdren’s OSTP email account.  OSTP further  agreed to produce emails on a rolling basis. Plaintiff responded by contending that this interpretation of  the FOIA request was a mischaracterization.  Plaintiff reiterated its demand for Defendant-related emails from Dr. Holdren’s Woods Hole email account, regardless of whether they were forwarded to OSTP or not.  Plaintiff thereafter initiated its action and discovery proceedings.  During discovery, Dr. Holdren was ordered to preserve the emails in his Woods Hole account on a thumb drive.  Defendant was additionally ordered to cease further searching. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment.

Defendant argued that it had no need to produce the emails from the Woods Hole account because they were duplicative of emails already provided from the OSTP email address.  The court found that Dr. Holdren did comply with the forwarding and copying departmental policy, and noted that Plaintiff was unable show any specific instance where Dr. Holdren failed to comply with this policy.  Based upon these findings, the court agreed that the request for the Woods Hole emails was duplicative of the request for the OSTP emails.  The court granted summary judgment in Defendant’s favor, ruling that under FOIA agencies are not required to produce duplicate records, and that the search of the emails conducted by Defendant was reasonable.

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