Ronald Yonemoto v. Dept. of Veterans Affairs

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Civil Law
  • Date Filed: 08-17-2011
  • Case #: 10-15180
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Berzon, for the Court; Circuit Judges Tashima and Fletcher
  • Full Text Opinion

An agency does not fulfill its obligation under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, when it offers to supply documents to a requester only to their capacity as an employee of that agency. Also, where details in a Vaughn index are entirely inadequate to determine whether a substantial privacy interest is at stake, the Court cannot perform de novo review and must remand.

Yonemoto is employed by the Veterans Health Administration, a component of defendant, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Yonemoto sued the VA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, after the VA disclosed 1500 redacted pages in response to Yonemoto’s requests for specific emails. Subsequently, numerous legal proceedings ensued. The Ninth Circuit held that the VA failed its obligation under the FOIA when it offered to disclose the 157 requested emails but only to Yonemoto in his capacity as its employee. Thus, the district court erred in finding Yonemoto’s other FOIA claims mooted. Next, regarding the VA’s application of Exemption 6 to nine emails viewed in camera, the Court found the district court failed to “state in reasonable detail the reasons for its decision as to each document in dispute,” and that that “lack of detail in the Vaughn index means we can only speculate as to why disclosing the information would invade a nontrivial privacy interest.” The Court further stated that evidentiary gaps that force speculation as to privacy interests that might be affected and on the relationship between Exemptions and content, are a “sure sign either that the factual record [was] incomplete or, if the record [was] complete, that the VA [could not] carry its burden of justifying the exemption.” Therefore, the Court cannot review de novo and must remand for further factual development and consideration by the district court. AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, VACATED IN PART AND REMANDED.

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