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Sikes v. United States Department of Navy

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Dublin Division

January 2, 2019

THOMAS W. SIKES, Plaintiff,


         On July 19, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals remanded this case to this Court to adjudicate the claim that the Defendant United States Department of the Navy ("the Navy") wrongfully withheld documents responsive to an FOIA[1] request submitted by Plaintiff Thomas W. Sikes. The Navy now represents that it has complied with the subject FOIA request and therefore seeks summary judgment on Plaintiff's claim. For the reasons stated below, the Navy's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On August 26, 2011, Plaintiff submitted a FOIA request for "[s]everal memorandum notes, business cards, laminated cards containing telephone numbers, and a six page handwritten document which appear to be notes relating to official business" recovered by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service ("NCIS") from the vehicle driven by Admiral Jeremy Michael Boorda shortly before his suicide.[2] This FOIA request has been referred to as "Request 2" in this and in the prior lawsuit between the parties, i.e., Sikes v. United States, et al., Civil Action No. 312-045 (S.D. Ga. May 24, 2012) ("Sikes I") .

         After Plaintiff filed Sikes I, the Navy produced eleven pages of records in response to Request 2. Thereafter, Plaintiff did not challenge the sufficiency of the Navy's response in the case. That is, he did not challenge the adequacy of the Navy's search for responsive records or the propriety of the redactions applied to those records. Indeed, this Court found that records disclosed to Plaintiff "appear to fully satisfy FOIA Request 2" and that there was "no indication that [the Navy] withheld any portion of the materials requested by Plaintiff." (See Sikes I, Order of Dec. 6, 2013, Doc. No. 43, at 37.) The Court dismissed Plaintiff's claim respecting Request 2 as moot (although Plaintiff was awarded attorney's fees on the claim). (See Sikes J, Order of Jan. 10, 2013, Doc. No. 17, at 10-12 (dismissing the claim); and Order of Apr. 7, 2014, Doc. No. 57 (awarding attorney's fees).)

         On April 30, 2014, Plaintiff submitted Request 5, [3] which sought "an accurate and complete copy of the document requested in FOIA Request 2" from Sikes J.[4] (Am. Compl., Doc. No. 19, ¶ 24.) The Navy provided no documents to Plaintiff in response because it had already produced documents in response to Request 2 in Sikes I.This Court upheld the Navy's withholding of responsive documents and dismissed Plaintiff's claim respecting Request 5. (Order of Apr. 27, 2017, Doc. No. 29, at 9-11.) Plaintiff appealed this decision.

         On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit explained that Request 5 was an independent FOIA request and that the Navy could not rely upon its prior production to withhold responsive documents because no such exemption exists in the statute. Sikes v. U.S. Dep't of the Navy, 896 F.3d 1227, 1234 (11th Cir. 2018) ("The problem for the Navy, however, is that FOIA itself contains nothing that would allow an agency to withhold records simply because it has previously given them to the requester."). The Eleventh Circuit further held that Plaintiff's claim is not precluded by the prior litigation in Sikes I because Plaintiff's "goal" is not to challenge the sufficiency of the Navy's production, but to "see whether the Navy will produce the same material now." Id. at 1236. The circuit court explained that the Navy's "failure to provide any records at all is what Sikes argues violated FOIA. He does not argue that the Navy must now give him something more than what he received in 2012-in fact those same documents are exactly what he seeks." Id. (emphasis added). The circuit court then remanded Plaintiff's claim respecting Request 5.

         In adopting the mandate of the Eleventh Circuit, this Court was prepared to enter judgment in favor of Plaintiff because, as the circuit court held, the Navy had wrongfully withheld documents responsive to Request 5. (See Order of Sept. 11, 2018, Doc. No. 43, at 2.) The Court then gave the Navy fourteen days to show cause why judgment should not be entered in favor of Plaintiff.

         The Navy timely filed the instant motion for summary judgment, contending that it has now responded to Request 5 and is therefore entitled to judgment in its favor. The Clerk gave Plaintiff notice of the summary judgment motion and the summary judgment rules, of the right to file affidavits or other materials in opposition, and of the consequences of default. (Doc. No. 45.) Therefore, the notice requirements of Griffith v. Wainwright, 772 F.2d 822, 825 (11th Cir. 1985) (per curiam), are satisfied. Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition to the motion for summary judgment, [5] the Navy filed a reply brief, and Plaintiff has now filed a sur-reply. The motion is ripe for consideration.


         The Court should grant summary judgment only if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The purpose of the summary judgment rule is to dispose of unsupported claims or defenses which, as a matter of law, raise no genuine issues of material fact suitable for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, all facts and reasonable inferences are to be construed in favor of the nonmoving party. Hogan v. Allstate Ins. Co., 361 F.3d 621, 625 (11th Cir.2004). Moreover,

[t]he mere existence of some factual dispute will not defeat summary judgment unless the factual dispute is material to an issue affecting the outcome of the case. The relevant rules of substantive law dictate the materiality of a disputed fact. A genuine issue of material fact does not exist unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a reasonable jury to return a verdict in its favor.

Chapman v. AI Transp., 229 F.3d 1012, 1023 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc) (quoted source omitted) (emphasis supplied). The party opposing the summary judgment motion, however, "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials in its pleadings. Rather, its responses . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue to be tried." Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1576-77 (11th Cir. 1990).

         III. ...

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