United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION, INC., AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION, and NATIONAL CONSUMER LAW CENTER, Plaintiffs,
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY
ALLISON D. BURROUGHS, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE
American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Inc., American
Civil Liberties Union, and National Consumer Law Center filed
a request under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C.
§ 552 (“FOIA”) in May 2015 seeking the
disclosure from Defendant United States Department of
Education of certain documents relating to the servicing of
student loans. After Defendant disclosed some, but not all,
of the documents requested by Plaintiffs, Plaintiffs filed
this lawsuit in March 2016 seeking an order directing
Defendant to make additional disclosures. [ECF No. 1]. Now
before the Court are Defendant's Motion for Summary
Judgment [ECF No. 44] and Plaintiffs' Cross-Motion for
Summary Judgment [ECF No. 50]. For the reasons set forth
below, the motions are denied in part and granted in part.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Office of Federal Student Aid (“FSA”) within the
Department of Education (“ED”) is responsible for
a range of functions pertaining to the disbursement,
servicing, and collection of student loans. ED contracts with
private loan servicers and private collection agencies
(“PCAs”) to service loans and collect on
defaulted loans. Borrowers are entitled to certain benefits,
including deferments, forbearances, and options for repayment
plans. Additionally, there are programs available after a
borrower defaults, such as cancellation due to disability.
Servicers and PCAs are responsible for communicating with
borrowers about these benefits. ED has developed policies and
procedures to enable FSA to conduct oversight of the
contractors and PCAs servicing and collecting on loans,
including a PCA Procedures Manual that sets forth
instructions to the PCAs, such as detailing collection
procedures. Plaintiffs seek information concerning ED's
oversight of the PCAs.
FOIA request sought information about Defendant's
relationship with PCAs, policies governing PCAs' debt
collection activities, the manner in which PCAs are
compensated, and information about Defendant's policies
for monitoring the impact of student debt on communities of
color, if such policies exist. The complete request is set
forth in the Declaration of Ann Marie Pedersen. [ECF No. 49
at 2-6]. Defendant produced documents in December 2015, March
2016, and several times after this lawsuit was filed,
beginning in July 2016.
challenge Defendant's withholding or redaction of several
documents, including portions of the PCA Procedures Manual, a
draft “Corrective Action Plan, ” emails sent
between agency employees concerning the development of
Frequently Asked Questions related to collection fees, emails
among agency employees and between agency employees and loan
servicers concerning how to respond to borrowers'
requests for assistance, and portions of the PCA Procedures
“was intended to expose the operations of federal
agencies ‘to the light of public scrutiny.'”
Carpenter v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 470 F.3d
434, 437 (1st Cir. 2006) (quoting Dep't of the Air
Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 372 (1976)). The policy
underlying FOIA is “one of broad disclosure, and the
government must supply any information requested by any
individual unless it determines that a specific exemption,
narrowly construed, applies.'” N.H. Right to
Life v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 778
F.3d 43, 49 (1st Cir. 2015) (quoting Church of
Scientology Int'l v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 30
F.3d 224, 228 (1st Cir. 1994)). “FOIA provides that
certain categories of materials are exempted from the general
requirements of disclosure, ” but these nine exemptions
“are to be construed narrowly, with any doubts resolved
in favor of disclosure.” Carpenter, 470 F.3d
at 438. “The government bears the burden of proving
that withheld materials fall within one of the statutory
exemptions, and district courts are required to make de novo
determinations as to the validity of the asserted
exemptions.” Id. (citing 5 U.S.C. §
552(a)(4)(B)) (additional citations omitted). To that end,
the government is obligated to provide “a reasonably
detailed explanation for its withholdings” in order to
“‘afford the FOIA requester a meaningful
opportunity to contest, and the district court an adequate
foundation to review, the soundness of the
withholding.'” Church of Scientology, 30
F.3d at 231, 233 (quoting Wiener v. F.B.I., 943 F.2d
972, 977 (9th Cir. 1991)).
cases are typically decided on motions for summary judgment.
Georgacarakos v. FBI, 908 F.Supp.2d 176, 180 (D.D.C.
2012). A movant is entitled to summary judgment when it shows
that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and
that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Where the parties have presented
cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court must
“evaluate each motion independently and determine
‘whether either of the parties deserves judgment as a
matter of law on facts that are not disputed.'”
Matusevich v. Middlesex Mut. Assur. Co., 782 F.3d
56, 59 (1st Cir. 2015) (quoting Barnes v. Fleet Nat'l
Bank, N.A., 370 F.3d 164, 170 (1st Cir. 2004)).
withheld certain material concerning its strategies for debt
collection pursuant to FOIA Exemption 7, which allows the
government to withhold “records or information compiled
for law enforcement purposes” where, inter
alia, the records “would disclose techniques and
procedures for law enforcement investigations or
prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law
enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure
could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the
law.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7). The information at
issue here includes portions of the PCA Procedures Manual
that provide guidelines for collecting on a defaulted debt,
including information about consolidation, wage garnishment,
and rehabilitation agreements, as well as an agreement
between ED and the Department of the Treasury regarding
Treasury Offset Procedures, which sets forth guidance on how
the two agencies collect on student loan debt.
does not provide a definition of “law enforcement
purposes, ” and few cases have grappled with the
meaning of that phrase in a context similar to the present
case. Defendant argues that because it is required by statute
to attempt to collect on student loan debt, it is engaged in
law enforcement activity when it does so. See 31
U.S.C. § 3711(a)(1) (“The head of an executive . .
. agency . . . shall try to collect a claim of the United
States Government for money or property arising out of the
activities of, or referred to, the agency . . . .”).
Plaintiffs respond that because borrowers' repayment
obligations arise from a contract, and not from a statute or
administrative law, the violation of the terms of the
contract is not a violation of the law, and the collection of
the debt is not a law enforcement activity.
question arose in a New York federal district court case in
which another advocacy organization requested from Defendant
essentially the same documentation at issue here. That court
determined that the PCA Procedures Manual did not qualify as
a “law enforcement” document because “[t]he
term ‘law enforcement' pertains to the prevention
and punishment of violations of the law, ” and
the agency was seeking “to prevent violations of the
terms of student loan contracts, not violations of the
law.” N.Y. Legal Assistance Grp., Inc. v. U.S.
Dep't of Educ., No. 15 CIV. 3818 (LGS), 2017 WL
2973976, at *9 (S.D.N.Y. July 12, 2017). Furthermore, the
court reasoned, ED could not “prove that disclosure
‘could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of
the law, ' because the borrowers would not be
circumventing the law-they would be circumventing the terms
of their contract.” Id. (quoting 5 U.S.C.
§ 552(b)(7)(E)). The Court concurs with this reasoning.
“The term ‘law enforcement' in Exemption 7
refers to the act of enforcing the law, both civil and
criminal.” Pub. Emps. for Envtl. Responsibility v.
U.S. Section, Int'l Boundary & Water Comm'n,
U.S.-Mexico, 740 F.3d 195, 203 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (citing
Black's Law Dictionary 964 (9th ed. 2009) as
“defining ‘law enforcement' as the
‘detection and punishment of violations of the