EPA Avoids Spoliation Sanctions, But D.C. District Court Not Pleased
On March 2, 2015, a D.C. district court denied a plaintiff’s motion for spoliation sanctions against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its conduct in connection with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Despite the result, the court expressed its displeasure with the agency.
From the very start of its opinion, the court expressed its dissatisfaction with EPA’s behavior in connection with Landmark Legal Foundation’s FOIA request. The court speculated that EPA’s conduct in response to the request was for one of two reasons. “Either EPA intentionally sought to evade Landmark’s lawful FOIA request so the agency could destroy responsive documents, or EPA demonstrated apathy and carelessness toward Landmark’s request.” The court believed that “[e]ither scenario reflects poorly upon EPA and surely serves to diminish the public’s trust in the agency.”
Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm, filed the FOIA request with EPA and later brought suit in order to obtain information as to whether the agency intentionally delayed proposing or finalizing any agency rules until after the 2012 presidential election. The court observed that EPA allegedly engaged in a variety of delay and spoliation tactics to destroy relevant information, including failing to produce emails from former Administrator Lisa Jackson’s personal email account that Landmark proved that she had used for official business.
Despite EPA’s conduct, the court denied Landmark’s motion, explaining that punitive spoliation sanctions require that the moving party demonstrate by “clear and convincing evidence that the opposing party destroyed relevant evidence in bad faith.” The court held that Landmark did not satisfy that standard.
In closing, however, the court noted that it was “left wondering whether EPA ha[d] learned from its mistakes, or if it will merely continue to address FOIA requests in the clumsy manner that has seemingly become its custom.” Finally, the court “implore[d] the Executive Branch to take greater responsibility in ensuring that all EPA FOIA requests – regardless of the political affiliation of the requester – are treated with equal respect and conscientiousness.”