By JACK BOUBOUSHIAN
WASHINGTON (CN) - The D.C. Circuit revived Prison Legal News' 12-year quest for documents showing all the money the Bureau of Prisons paid for "lawsuits and claims against it."
Prison Legal News in 2003 sought documents under the Freedom of Information Act on "all funds paid out to claimants/litigants between January 1, 1996, through and including July 31, 2003."
Prison Legal News publishes a monthly magazine by and about prison inmates, focusing on legal issues and conditions in U.S. prisons.
It sought "a copy of the verdict, settlement or claim in each case showing the dollar amount paid, the identity of the plaintiff/claimant and the legal identifying information for each lawsuit or claim or attorney fee award."
It also wanted "a copy of the complaint (if it was a lawsuit) or the claim (if it was not) in each incident which describes the underlying facts of each lawsuit and claim." (Parentheses in original.)
The Bureau of Prison produced no records until Prison Legal News sued. Then it produced 11,000 pages of documents, of which 2,993 contained redactions.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton in 2013 granted the Bureau of Prisons summary judgment on redactions in the 102 documents that remained at issue.
But the D.C. Circuit remanded the case on June 5, finding that "more was required, both of the Bureau and of the district court."
Since the documents included personal information, Walton ruled that the government showed that privacy concerns outweighed the public's interest in the redacted information.
But the appeals court said Walton erred in accepting the government's categorical approach to claiming that privacy interests trumped disclosure.
"Both the final Vaughn index and the Moorer Declaration lump the privacy interests of all claimants and any perpetrator or witness whose information is redacted into categories based on the type of document in which the individual's information appears. Both provide only cursory statements such as those described above to justify the redactions," Judge A. Raymond Randolph wrote for the three-judge panel.
These documents make no distinction between the privacy interests of the alleged victim and those of the alleged perpetrator.
"This distinction is significant with respect to the employees' interest in keeping their information private. But the Bureau has made no effort to distinguish between the privacy interests of employees who are victims and those who are perpetrators. In fact, it has offered little support for redacting information that would identify perpetrators," Randolph wrote.
In addition, the Bureau was inconsistent in its redactions, redacting some perpetrators' names while revealing others, according to the 15-page judgment.
"We are not foreclosing use of a categorical approach," Randolph said. "But the redactions in this case vary greatly, and the categories are not drawn based on the individual's privacy interest or the public interest in disclosure."
The court reversed and remanded.