NAVIGATOR PUBLISHING v. U.S. DEP'T OF TRANSPORTATION

146 F. Supp.2d 68 (2001) | Cited 0 times | D. Maine | June 4, 2001

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS

I conclude in this case that the addresses of United States-licensedmerchant mariners are not subject to disclosure under the Freedom ofInformation Act ("FOIA").1

BACKGROUND

Navigator Publishing, L.L.C., which publishes Ocean Navigator, AmericanTugboat Review and Professional Mariner, wants a list of the names andaddresses of all United States-licensed merchant mariners. Compl.¶¶ 3, 7. It asked the United States Coast Guard for such a list.Id. ¶ 7. The Coast Guard agreed to provide the names, but not theaddresses. Id. ¶ 10. To justify its refusal of the addresses, theCoast Guard relied on Exemption 6 of the FOIA, which exempts fromdisclosure "personnel and medical and similar files the disclosure ofwhich would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personalprivacy." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6).

Navigator Publishing has now sued the United States Department ofTransportation for the addresses. The Department of Transportation hasmoved for judgment on the pleadings. I grant the motion.

ANALYSIS

Since Navigator Publishing has obtained the names of licensed merchantmariners, the only issue is the justification for granting or withholdingthe addresses. The applicable principles are clear. Under United StatesDepartment of State v. Washington Post Co., 456 U.S. 595, 602 (1982), theaddresses fall under FOIA Exemption 6's "similar files" category.(Navigator Publishing agrees, Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for J. on thePleadings ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 3-4.) As a result, the Court must balancethe public interest in disclosure against the mariners' interest inkeeping their addresses confidential. See United States Dep't ofDefense v. FLRA, 510 U.S. 487, 495 (1994) (quoting United States Dep't ofJustice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749,776 (1989)) ("`a court must balance the public interest in disclosureagainst the interest Congress intended the [e]xemption to protect.'")(alteration in original). (Again, Navigator Publishing agrees, Pl.'sOpp'n at 4.) Under FOIA, the presumption is in favor of disclosure: "FOIAreflects `a general philosophy of full agency disclosure unlessinformation is exempted under clearly delineated statutory language.'"FLRA, 510 U.S. at 494 (quoting United States Dep't of the Air Force v.Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 360-61 (1976)).

Applying those principles, I recognize, first, that the Supreme Courthas recognized "some nontrivial privacy interest" in home addresses, aninterest that is "far from insignificant." FLRA, 510 U.S. at 501. Amongother things, the Supreme Court has identified the interest "inpreventing at least some unsolicited, unwanted mail from reaching [theaddressees] at their homes." Id. (Again, Navigator Publishing agrees,Pl.'s Opp'n at 5 ("[I]ndividuals have a privacy interest in protectingtheir names and addresses from public disclosure.")).

Second, in one case, FLRA, the Supreme Court found the public interestin disclosing addresses to be "negligible, at best." 510 U.S. at 497.In that particular case, the Court reasoned that disclosure of addresses"would reveal little or nothing about the employing agencies or theiractivities." Id. In this case, Navigator Publishing does not say why itwants the licensed mariners' addresses (although anyone who receivesregular mailings from publishing companies urging the purchase ofmagazine subscriptions might surmise why).2 Instead, NavigatorPublishing relies on court decisions that hold that the actual motive forrequesting disclosure and the identity of the requesting party have nobearing under FOIA, and that the issue instead is simply whether theinformation potentially would shed light on government operations. See,e.g., FLRA, 510 U.S. at 496; Reporters Comm., 489 U.S. at 771. To thatend, Navigator Publishing suggests in its legal memorandum that someonewith the list of names and addresses could perform a comprehensivecriminal record check around the country and determine whether the CoastGuard is performing well its statutory responsibility to screen licenseapplicants. Pl.'s Opp'n at 11-12. (Navigator Publishing does not suggestthat it will do such a record check or who might.)

According to the Supreme Court, the "only relevant `public interest indisclosure'" is "the extent to which disclosure would serve the `corepurpose of the FOIA,' which is `contribut[ing] significantly to publicunderstanding of the operations or activities of the government.'"FLRA, 510 U.S. at 495, quoting Reporters Comm., 489 U.S. at 775(alteration in original). The Court reiterated this limitation in Biblesv. Oregon Natural Desert Ass'n, 519 U.S. 355 (1997) (per curiam).Obviously, the disclosure of mariners' addresses will not directly shedlight on the Coast Guard's performance of its duties. Instead, it is ahypothetical "derivative use"?matching the records against country-widecriminal records?that assertedly would permit an evaluation of CoastGuard performance. The Supreme Court has not decided "whether a`derivative use' theory would ever justify release of information aboutprivate individuals." United States Dep't of State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164,179 (1991). It has said that "[m]ere speculation about hypotheticalpublic benefits cannot outweigh a demonstrably significant invasion ofprivacy." Id. Here, Navigator Publishing does not articulate why theaddresses (in addition to the names) are critical to the hypotheticalinvestigation of Coast Guard screening performance; presumably theirhypothetical role is to distinguish among people of the same name, but Ihave no way of knowing how significant a name overlap would be in acriminal records check, or whether the current address would be much helpin alleviating it. (Date of birth or social security number would appearto be a much better way of narrowing the field in running a criminalhistory record check in every federal and state jurisdiction.)

CONCLUSION

I conclude that Navigator Publishing simply has not demonstrated thatdisclosure of mariners' addresses will contribute in any meaningful wayto an assessment of Coast Guard screening practices for licensees.Balanced against an addressee's nontrivial privacy interest that theSupreme Court has recognized under FOIA, it falls woefully short;disclosure would be "a clearly unwarranted invasion."5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). Accordingly, the Coast Guard was entitled towithhold the list of addresses. The Department of Transportation'smotion for judgment on the pleadings is GRANTED. SO ORDERED.

1. As I said recently in Corbin v. Chitwood, Mem. Dec. & Order onMot. for T.R.O., No. 01-93-P-H at 10 (May 10, 2001) (denying request fortemporary restraining order), the constitutional analysis of any privacyinterest in an address is different from the statutory analysis underFOIA. See also United States Dep't of Justice v. Reporters Comm. forFreedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 761 n. 13 ("The question of thestatutory meaning of privacy under the FOIA is, of course, not the samequestion . . . [whether] an individual's interest in privacy is protectedunder the Constitution.").

2. In its legal memorandum, Navigator Publishing does suggest that"some additional mailings" will result from disclosure of the addresses.Pl's Opp'n at 7.

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