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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Law Firm Wins Case, Loses Related FOIA Bid

(CN) - A Washington, D.C., law firm failed to state a valid claim the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrongly withheld documents after the firm trounced it in an underlying lawsuit, a federal judge ruled.

Hall & Associates recently prevailed in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Iowa League of Cities, which ended with the 8th Circuit ruling environmental regulators failed to go through the proper channels before adopting new rules on sewer water treatment.

The Iowa League of Cities had led the charge against the Environmental Protection Agency after determining that the agency's official written policies did not correspond to the expectations it had of state entities that served as liaisons between the EPA and municipal wastewater treatment facilities.

Beginning in 1994, the EPA had given states discretion as to whether their water quality standards can incorporate bacteria-mixing zones. These zones of navigable water contain a higher concentration of pollutants, with the expectation that the pollutants will diffuse as they move through the larger body of water.

The Iowa League of Cities sought clarification on the zones policy, and also on the EPA's stance on a process in water treatment called blending. This process aims to keep water-treatment facilities operating through a storm through a system of channeling, combination and discharge.

After receiving the EPA's responses in June and September 2011, the league said that those letters effectively established new policy that skipped over the notice-and-comment procedures required under the Administrative Procedures Act.

Though the EPA insisted its letters merely reflected general policy statements or, at most, interpretative rules, the 8th Circuit found them procedurally invalid.

After the ruling, Hall & Associates filed a Freedom of Information request seeking the clarify whether the decision would apply only in the 8th Circuit, or more broadly, as compliance with rules had the potential of costing cities across the nation as much as $150 billion.

The EPA responded by producing some documents, but withholding many others and charging the law firm over $1,000 in the process. Believing this response inadequate and the fees "inconceivable," Hall & Associates appealed the agency's response.

When the EPA affirmed its own earlier decision, the law firm sued the agency in the D.C. Federal Court, alleging the agency failed to provide a legitimate basis for withholding responsive documents, that it failed to comply with the FOIA request, and that it charged the firm an "excessive and inappropriate" fee.

The EPA then filed a motion for dismiss on the grounds that the firm had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies and that it failed to state a valid claim in any event.

In response, the EPA moved to dismiss Hall & Associates' complaint, arguing the firm failed to exhaust at least one of its FOIA claims before resorting to the federal courts, and because its complaint otherwise failed to state a claim.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled in the EPA's favor.

In doing so, Bates held the " exhaustion-of-remedies rule dooms one of Hall's three FOIA claims.

"As described, Hall seeks relief based in part on EPA's alleged 'failure to provide a legitimate basis and rationale for withholding[] responsive documents, or segregable portions thereof' ... But Hall did not raise this ground for relief until it filed the complaint in this case-and that is far too late," he continued. "A close look at Hall's February 2014 appeal letter confirms the point. 'For the reasons set forth more thoroughly below,' Hall wrote, 'please consider this letter to be an administrative appeal of EPA's [FOIA] response' ... And what were those 'reasons'? Hall (using numbered, bolded text) gave two: '1. The responsive documents produced by Headquarters did not respond to the FOIA request'; and '2. Headquarters' fee of $1,015.75 is inappropriate and excessive.'

"There is no third reason listed in the letter; nowhere in the letter does Hall specifically challenge EPA's decision to withhold any document; and, more to the point, nowhere in the letter does Hall complain about the "basis and rationale" for EPA's decision to withhold. Hall's withholding claim is therefore an unexhausted one, and it must fall by the wayside," Bates concluded.

He then moved on to dismiss the remainder of Hall & Associates' claims, focusing on the question of whether the firm's complaint -- if accepted as true -- was suffice to state claim upon which relief can be granted.

"The answer is no," the judge concluded. "Start with Hall's no-responsive-documents claim. Even if the Court credited the firm's version of events, the claim fails because general complaints about the results of a search do not amount to a cognizable FOIA claim.

" ...And even if FOIA recognized such claims, Hall's allegations fall short of stating one," Bates continued. "In its appeal letter, Hall alleged that 'none of the documents provided by the Agency in its Partial Response are responsive to [Hall's] FOIA request, nor is it apparent that the documents withheld in the Partial and Final Responses were related to the actual request.' ... But the firm tells quite a different story in its complaint. On more than one occasion, Hall's complaint alleges that EPA's search uncovered responsive documents. 'Upon review of the Agency's exempt document list,' Hall wrote, 'there are numerous documents that, based upon their titles, were responsive and improperly withheld.' ... And elsewhere: 'As the list of withheld documents makes clear, EPA has prepared several detailed assessments of the Agency's position as to the applicability of the Iowa League of Cities[] decision. These basic documents should be released for the public to review.'

"Taking these factual allegations as true -- that EPA's search did uncover responsive documents, which the Agency chose to withhold -- renders Hall's no-responsive-documents claim '[im]plausible on its face.' Dismissal is therefore appropriate," Bates wrote.

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