Kowack v. USFS

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Civil Law
  • Date Filed: 09-09-2014
  • Case #: 12-35864
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Chief Judge Kozinski for the Court; Circuit Judges Rawlinson and Bea
  • Full Text Opinion

When redacting documents in a Freedom of Information Act request, a detailed Vaughn index is required to supplement the redacted information.

Mark Kowack taught disadvantaged youth at the Trapper Creek Center in Darby, Montana for the Forest Service Job Corps Program. While employed, Kowack claimed he began to experience threats and harassment from his colleagues and feared for his safety. He filed a complaint and a misconduct investigation was conducted. The documents that were obtained from the investigation were compiled into one central report that was presented to the Forest Service Manager, who declined to take any further action. Kowack, who was dissatisfied with this result, filed a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request for the investigation report. The Forest Service complied with the request, but redacted 80 pages of the report under the personal privacy exemption. Kowack appealed this decision, and the district court ordered the Forest Service to create a Vaughn index to identify the redacted information. Included in the redacted information, were 22 pages of witness statements made by another employee to the investigator. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit determined that the description of the statements in the Vaughn index were too vague to determine if the documents should be released. The government has the duty to protect the privacy of individuals and this was the panel’s main concern in releasing the documents. The panel also assessed whether the additional administrative documents, initially withheld, should be released. The panel used the same balancing test as the witness statements to determine if the documents should be released and found that “the personal privacy exemption doesn’t justify the non-disclosure of these documents.” The panel ultimately determined that the original Vaughn index requested by the district court was not complete enough to determine if the information requested should be released. Therefore, the case was remanded to the district court to produce a more detailed Vaughn index. REVERSED IN PART and REMANDED.

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