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Rocky Mountain Wild v. United States Bureau of Land Management

United States District Court, D. Colorado

January 16, 2019

ROCKY MOUNTAIN WILD, a Colorado non-profit corporation, Plaintiffs,



         Plaintiff Rocky Mountain Wild alleges that Defendants United States Bureau of Land Management and United States Department of the Interior (together, “BLM” or “Defendants”) failed to respond properly to Rocky Mountain Wild's October 2017 request for agency records under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552. Rocky Mountain Wild further claims that BLM's improper handling of the request is consistent with alleged previous instances of mishandling FOIA requests, particularly requests for records related to oil and gas leasing decisions, which Rocky Mountain Wild frequently submits. Rocky Mountain Wild thus seeks an injunction remedying the alleged deficiencies in BLM's response to the October 2017 request, as well as an injunction against BLM's alleged pattern or practice of deficient FOIA responses.

         Currently before the Court is BLM's Partial Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 13.) BLM asks the Court to dismiss all claims except the core claim regarding whether BLM properly responded to Rocky Mountain Wild's October 2017 FOIA request. BLM argues that Rocky Mountain Wild lacks standing to bring the challenged claims, and further argues that Rocky Mountain Wild has failed to state a claim for relief as to those claims.

         For the reasons explained below, the Court agrees in part with BLM's standing argument, and agrees that Rocky Mountain Wild otherwise fails to state a claim. The Court will therefore grant the motion.


         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         BLM's standing argument falls under Rule 12(b)(1), which permits challenges to subject matter jurisdiction. “[Federal] [d]istrict courts have limited subject matter jurisdiction and may [only] hear cases when empowered to do so by the Constitution and by act of Congress.” Randil v. Sanborn W. Camps, Inc., 384 F.3d 1220, 1225 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted). “A court lacking jurisdiction cannot render judgment but must dismiss the case at any stage of the proceedings in which it becomes apparent that jurisdiction is lacking.” Basso v. Utah Power & Light Co., 495 F.2d 906, 909 (10th Cir. 1974).

         Rule 12(b)(1) motions generally take one of two forms: a facial attack or a factual attack. Here, BLM attaches certain extra-record documents and so brings, in part, a factual attack. Given this, the Court has “wide discretion to allow affidavits, other documents, and a limited evidentiary hearing to resolve disputed jurisdictional facts.” Holt v. United States, 46 F.3d 1000, 1002 (10th Cir. 1995). Furthermore, the Court's reference to evidence beyond the pleadings will not convert the motion to one under Rules 56 or 12(b)(6), unless the jurisdictional question is intertwined with the merits of the case. Id. Here, as will become clear below, the jurisdictional question is independent from the merits.

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a party may move to dismiss a claim in a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” The 12(b)(6) standard requires the Court to “assume the truth of the plaintiff's well-pleaded factual allegations and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Ridge at Red Hawk, LLC v. Schneider, 493 F.3d 1174, 1177 (10th Cir. 2007). In ruling on such a motion, the dispositive inquiry is “whether the complaint contains ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Granting a motion to dismiss “is a harsh remedy which must be cautiously studied, not only to effectuate the spirit of the liberal rules of pleading but also to protect the interests of justice.” Dias v. City & Cnty. of Denver, 567 F.3d 1169, 1178 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Thus, ‘a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).


         A. The FOIA Request

          Rocky Mountain Wild submitted a FOIA request to BLM on October 19, 2017, seeking “all agency records involving [BLM's] proposed March 2018 oil and gas leasing” of specified parcels. (ECF No. 1-1.) Under FOIA, Rocky Mountain Wild's request triggered a 20-working-day clock during which BLM was required to “determine . . . whether to comply with such request, ” at which point BLM was further required to “immediately notify [Rocky Mountain Wild] of such determination and the reasons therefor.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(i). However, a failure to make such a determination within 20 working days may be “excused for an additional 10 days” if “unusual circumstances apply . . . and the agency provided a timely written notice to the requester.” Id. § 552(a)(4)(A)(viii)(II)(aa); see also 43 C.F.R. § 2.19. The same day that BLM received Rocky Mountain Wild's request, a BLM employee e-mailed Rocky Mountain Wild to explain that it was invoking the 10-day extension “because we need to search for and collect responsive records from a field office separate from the office that is processing your request.” (ECF No. 13-1 at 2.)

         By letter dated December 5, 2017 (the thirty-first working day after Rocky Mountain Wild submitted its request), BLM responded to Rocky Mountain Wild with what it characterized as “installment 1 to your [FOIA] request.” (ECF No. 1-2.) Installment 1 comprised 140 pages. (Id.) BLM announced that it was “still reviewing additional records that are responsive to your request and will follow with further installments.” (Id.)

         By letter dated December 28, 2017, BLM transmitted “installment 2, ” comprising 1, 595 pages. (ECF No. 1-3.) BLM again announced that it was “still reviewing additional records that are responsive to your request and will follow with further installments.” (Id.)

         B. The Original Complaint

         Rocky Mountain Wild filed this lawsuit on February 8, 2018. (ECF No. 1.) In that original complaint, Rocky Mountain Wild asserted three claims for relief.

         The first claim for relief alleged that BLM had violated FOIA “by failing to provide a lawful determination and response . . . within the statutory [20-day or 30-day] period.” (Id. ¶ 33; see also id. ¶ 26.) The first claim for relief also pleaded that BLM failed to conduct a lawful search for responsive records, and that BLM continues to violate FOIA by withholding agency records responsive to Rocky Mountain Wild's request and not subject to any FOIA exemption. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 34-35.)

         Rocky Mountain Wild's second claim for relief alleged that BLM's conduct is such that it merits referral to special counsel under 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(F) for investigation into wrongdoing. (Id. ¶¶ 38-39.) The Court will discuss this remedy further in Part III.B, below.

         Rocky Mountain Wild's third claim for relief alleged “a pattern and [sic] practice of not complying with FOIA's statutory requirements in a timely manner.” (Id. ¶ 41.) Rocky Mountain Wild also alleged a pattern or practice of withholding agency records through intentional delay, and withholding records that are not subject to any exemption. (Id. ¶¶ 42-43.)

         C. Final ...

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