FOIA Backlog Cleared at Fisheries Service

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge has ruled that a government agency rightfully redacted names of personnel in an environment-related FOIA request and that recent administrative improvements have resolved a backlog problem.
     Our Children’s Earth Foundation and Ecological Rights Foundation sued the National Marine Fisheries Service in March 2014, claiming it did not properly respond to Freedom of Information Act requests for documents connected to Stanford University’s plan to upgrade water diversion facilities and the impacts it would have on steelhead trout and other endangered species.
     They claim the service’s responses to their FOIA requests were improper and hampered their ability to monitor the project and “to serve as an effective public-interest watchdog.”
     U.S. District Judge William Orrick brought the issue to an end for Judge Samuel Conti who presided over the case until his retirement this past October. It was reassigned on Nov. 3, and Orrick reviewed the case and Conti’s chain of conclusions and orders.
     Only a couple issues remained at that point: whether the service appropriately redacted names and contact information included in official documents and whether the agency has a “pattern and practice” of providing “tardy and incomplete” responses – and if so, what could be done about it.
     Orrick said the agency had a valid interest in protecting individual privacy.
     “I conclude that National Marine Fisheries Service has identified a cognizable privacy interest supporting redaction of the names and contact information,” he wrote in Tuesday’s 9-page order. “On the other side of the balance, I do not see any public interest in disclosing the names and contact information. The only public interest argument put forth by plaintiffs is their ability ‘to be able to evaluate whether the service is adequately searching its files by tasking personnel with reviewing their files.’ The adequacy of the service’s search is no longer an issue, following Judge Conti’s orders.”
     Orrick added that the agency has also corrected its backlog problem.
     “It is apparent – as Judge Conti Found – that the service was at one time routinely failing to obey FOIA’s deadlines,” he said. “It is also apparent that the service has made significant improvements and structural changes (in technology and staffing) that are to continue in the future. For purposes of these cases, that is enough. I conclude that no further action by the court is warranted.”
     Orrick gave the parties until Jan. 30 to submit a stipulated form of judgment.

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