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D.D.C. on TSA FOIA Productions, Database Searches and More!

Yesterday on May 24, 2018, Judge Randolph Moss of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, issued a decision, Sai v. Transp. Sec. Admin., 14-403 (RDM), 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87237 (D.D.C. May 24, 2018), granting in part, and denying in part th defendant's motion for summary judgment. The TSA's motion was based on the fact that it had reasonably construed the plaintiff's record requests. Sai contended that the search was inadequate because the TSA, "failed to produce segregable portions of records; withheld metadata and failed to release records in their 'native,' electronic format or in 'fully digital, non-rasterized' PDFs; improperly designated records as Sensitive Security Information ("SSI")" Id. at *3.

The court's decision includes rulings on two arguments made in opposition to the summary judgment motion.

1. The Format of the Records

Sai argued that the TSA erred by failing to produce records in native format, with the associated metadata, and by failing to provide a Vaughan index in spreadsheet format. [a Vaughn index is a document that lists reasons for withholding documents on the basis of FOIA exemptions.] The court rejected the contention that under the Rehabilitation Act, the plaintiff, who is disabled, has a basis to request the native files and metadata because they would be more accessible to him. Judge Moss found that Sai offered nothing more than 'labels and conclusions' to support his conclusion that the records where in a format that violated his rights under section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act which requires federal agencies to make ESI accessible for disabled persons.

The court looked more favorably on Sai's contention that the TSA had to produce native files under the Electronic Freedom of Information Act which requires the government to produce records in any requested format if it is 'readily reproducible' in that format. The TSA argued that records were not available in their native format because it used a processing software called FOIAXpress to process records, removing SSI. The resulting output was only in PDF format. Judge Moss rejected the TSA's position that, "releasing records under FOIA in their original format would be unduly burdensome because its FOIA processing software, and its SSI review process, require re-formatting the records as PDF files, and because it lacked the technical sophistication to redact files in their original formats." Id. at 33. He also held that it did not demonstrate that it could not produce records in fully digital "text PDFs'.

2. Adequacy of Searches

The court found that the TSA failed to meet its burden to show that its searches covered the relevant time frame, and that its database searches were not reasonably calculated to recover responsive records. It faulted the TSA for not identifying the search terms it used in some offices. "Without knowing the search terms the TSA used, the Court cannot determine whether its efforts were 'reasonably calculated' to locate responsive records in those offices." Id. at 55.

The court rejected the plaintiff's position on its request for all TSA policy and procedures documents, which it found to be "vastly overboard", stating that, "[h]aving failed to frame his request with sufficient specificity, he cannot now fault the TSA for conducting an onerous, but not exhaustive, search based on its best assessment of what records were most important to Sai." Id. at 58, 62.

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