Wednesday, October 4, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, October 4, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Feds Owe Half a Million to Tenacious Journalist

(CN) - A journalist who won access to documents on President Ronald Regan's supposed work as an FBI informant can collect nearly $470,400 in attorneys' fees, a federal judge ruled.

Seth Rosenfeld, of California, filed three suits against the Department of Justice and FBI in 1990 after they denied his Freedom of Information Act requests for "any and all" FBI records pertaining to the University of California.

He again sued the pair in 1997 over records concerning former President Ronald Reagan "and the individuals who were closely associated with him during the Cold War period."

According to two orders, levied Thursday by U.S. District Judge Edward Chen, Rosenfeld "has written numerous publications about the FBI's activities in connection with the University of California during the Cold War, and the impact those activities had on the 'academic freedom and civil liberties' of American citizens."

The activities in question, Chen added, include the FBI's political surveillance of University of California students and faculty in the 1950s and 1960s, and the agency's attempts to oust Clark Kerr as university president.

In addition, Rosenfeld "claims that Reagan was an FBI informant and that the FBI played an integral role in supporting Reagan's political career," according to the ruling. "Plaintiff seeks information about how the FBI's operations impacted Reagan's political career, his shaping of government policy while governor of California, and the exercise of constitutionally protected activities by American citizens during this time period."

The parties settled the three initial suits in 1996, and the FBI agreed to reprocess and release the documents at issue. Rosenfeld received $560,000 in attorney fees and costs in the settlement, which preserved his "right to seek attorney fees and costs for all work done in these cases, including work done in connection with the fee negotiations ... and all subsequent phases of the litigation."

In 2006, Rosenfeld filed a motion claiming the agency failed to release the specified documents, and a judge directed the FBI to conduct additional searches for responsive records.

And, in 2007, Rosenfeld filed another complaint over the release of the Reagan documents.

Chen, from San Francisco in March, granted Rosenfeld summary judgment and ordered the FBI to release Ronald Reagan 1539-1541, a three-page document dated Jan. 9, 1975.

Rosenfeld said the ongoing litigation quickly exceeded the original $560,000 award of attorneys' fees, and that he incurred further costs with the Reagan request.

The FBI objected and said Rosenfeld was ineligible to receive the funds because "he did not substantially prevail" in the litigation; that it made "good faith efforts" to respond to his FOIA requests; and that his requested award amount greatly exceeded what was "reasonable."

In total, the agency estimated that it spent more than $1 million processing Rosenfeld's requests.

Ruling on the multidecade disputes, Chen said Rosenfeld "demonstrated both eligibility for and entitlement to an award of attorney's fees."

"Having found that Rosenfeld substantially prevailed in this suit, and that the government lacked a reasonable basis in law for withholding the records at issue, the court rejects the FBI's argument that costs incurred ought to be borne by each party respectively," Chen added.

Rosenfeld is currently writing a book that expands upon his published articles related to the requests.

"Rosenfeld is a professional journalist who made his underlying FOIA request to find supporting materials for a book he is readying for publication," Chen wrote, citing Davy v. CIA. "In certain circumstances where an author and journalist has a financial incentive to use FOIA to acquire source documents for use in a book, courts have declined to find an entitlement to attorney's fees. However, the 'mere intention to publish a book does not necessarily mean that the nature of the plaintiff's interest is purely commercial.'"

Ultimately, Chen granted Rosenfeld $363,200 for the Reagan request and $107,200 for the initial trio of suits.

Categories / Uncategorized

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.