Fighting to enforce the right of the public and the media to access public records is a longtime focus of pro bono work at Davis Wright Tremaine. The firm won two victories in this fight on behalf of Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine published by the Human Rights Defense Center that emphasizes reporting on prisoners’ rights issues.
In the first case, D.C. lawyers Ronnie London and Lisa Zycherman won an appellate ruling that may help extract information from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons regarding the money it has spent settling suits filed against it by prisoners and employees.
Prison Legal News has been seeking the information for over a decade and received no documents at all until filing suit itself in 2005. At that point the bureau produced 11,000 pages of documents, more than a quarter of which contained redactions.
Redacted out were names and other identifying information of people involved in suits filed against the bureau—such as employees who were the subject of discrimination claims. After our client prevailed in several successive rounds of summary judgment, the bureau ultimately managed to convince the trial court to let the agency slide, arguing that these redactions fell under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemptions for personnel files.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed that decision in June. The court agreed with our client that the bureau used too broad a brush in justifying its redactions, failing to distinguish, for instance, between the privacy interests of victims versus perpetrators, or between those who suffered a slip-and-fall and those who suffered sexual assault.
The court remanded the case to the district court, with instructions that it more properly balance individuals’ privacy interests against the public interest in disclosure. The DWT team, with assistance from Portland associate Ashley Vulin, has since started a new case for Prison Legal News, involving similar records for years subsequent to those in the ongoing litigation.
In the second case, DWT lawyers Eric Stahl and Angela Galloway pursued records concerning the terms and rates for detainee phone services out of the federal immigration detention facility near Seattle. Citing “egregious” delay on the part of U.S. Department of Homeland Security in responding to our client’s FOIA request, Chief U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman granted our summary judgment motion (and denied the government’s cross-motion) in June.
Homeland Security initially ignored our client’s request, then released most of the documents prior to the summary judgment motions. The agency refused, however, to release portions of its agreement with the private phone contractor, including the contractor’s performance incentive rate, on trade secret grounds. Judge Pechman found the evidence supporting that argument insufficient.
“It was an excellent outcome for the client and for government accountability,” says Galloway. “It is also important case law: It affirms that courts will hold government agencies accountable not only when they wrongfully withhold public records, but also when they refuse to acknowledge valid records requests until they hear from a lawyer.”