United States District Court, N.D. California
ORDER ON SUFFICIENCY OF VAUGHN INDEX Re: Dkt. Nos. 207, 208
NATHANAEL M. COUSINS, Magistrate Judge.
In this Freedom of Information Act case, plaintiff William Pickard seeks information from the federal government relating to confidential informant Gordon Todd Skinner. Because the government seeks to withhold the requested documents, it filed a 113-page Vaughn Index. Dkt. No. 166. Such an Index was supposed to identify each document withheld, as well as the statutory exemption claimed. This Index also should have provided a particularized explanation of how disclosing a specific document would damage the interest protected by the claimed exemption.
The District Court found the prior Index "supremely unhelpful, " and ordered the government to submit a new Vaughn Index to the undersigned magistrate judge for review. Dkt. No. 198 at 1, 8 (adding that the "declaration in support of the Vaughn Index is no better" at providing information about the documents' contents and the exemptions that apply).
After reviewing the most recent Vaughn Index and the responsive documents, this Court finds that the Index-even when viewed in combination with the government's supporting declaration-fails to sufficiently describe the withheld documents in adequate detail so as to allow Pickard to challenge the government's claimed exemptions. The government also failed to identify what documents have already been released publicly, which the District Court ordered it to do.
Accordingly, this Court orders the government to file a new Vaughn Index and supporting declaration.
This case has been litigated for over 8 years, and its history is therefore substantial. The Court focuses only on the limited background relevant to this Order.
Pickard seeks documents from the Drug Enforcement Agency pertaining to DEA informant Gordon Todd Skinner. District Court Judge Breyer denied the government's motion for summary judgment, which argued that all documents related to Skinner were categorically exempt. Dkt. No. 198. Judge Breyer also denied Pickard's motion for summary judgment, which argued that references to Skinner's name, Skinner's NADDIS number, and information publicly disclosed by Skinner could not be exempt. Id. Judge Breyer rejected that argument, finding that without a sufficiently detailed Vaughn Index, the District Court could not determine the propriety of the claimed exemptions. Id.
Judge Breyer ordered the government to file a more detailed Vaughn Index and supporting declaration, and to submit the withheld documents to the undersigned judge for in camera review. Id.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
Ordinarily, in litigation, the discovery process gives each party access to the other party's evidence. "In a FOIA case, however, because the issue is whether one party will disclose documents to the other, only the party opposing disclosure will have access to all the facts." Wiener v. FBI, 943 F.2d 972, 977 (9th Cir. Cal. 1991) (citations omitted). "This lack of knowledge by the party seeking disclosure seriously distorts the traditional adversary nature of our legal system." Id. (quoting Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820, 824 (D.C. Cir. 1973)). By forcing the requesting party to rely on his opponent's representations as to the undisclosed material, the "court is deprived of the benefit of informed advocacy to draw its attention to the weaknesses in the withholding agency's arguments." Id.
In light of this problem, "[g]overnment agencies seeking to withhold documents requested under the FOIA are required to supply the opposing party with a Vaughn index identifying each document withheld, the statutory exemption claimed, and a particularized explanation of how disclosure of the particular document would damage the interest protected by the claimed exemption." Kucernak v. FBI, 129 F.3d 126 (9th Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). " Specificity is the defining requirement of the Vaughn index." Wiener v. FBI, 943 F.2d at 979 (emphasis added). Thus, the index must reveal "as much information as possible without thwarting the exemption's purpose." King v. DOJ, 830 F.2d 210, 224 (D.C. Cir. 1987).
The purpose of the Vaughn Index is to "afford the FOIA requester a meaningful opportunity to contest, and the district court an adequate foundation to review, the soundness of the withholding." Wiener, 943 F.2d at 977 (quoting King, 830 F.2d at 218). "The index thus functions to restore the adversary process to some extent, and to permit more effective judicial review of the agency's decision." Id. at 978.
Notably, "[i]n camera review of the withheld documents by the court is not an acceptable substitute for an adequate Vaughn index" because the Court's review "does not permit effective advocacy." Id. at 979; see also Martins v. U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Servs., 962 F.Supp.2d 1106, 1129 (N.D. Cal. 2013) ("In ...