Justia U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, was murdered in a Saudi consulate in 2018, apparently on orders of the Saudi Crown Prince. Under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(3)(A), the plaintiffs sought records about whether four U.S. intelligence agencies knew, before the murder, of an impending threat to Khashoggi. The agencies refused to confirm or deny whether they have any responsive records, on the ground that the existence or nonexistence of such records is classified information. FOIA Exemption 1 covers matters that are “specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.” To claim a FOIA exemption, an agency ordinarily must “acknowledge the existence of information responsive to a FOIA request” but if “the fact of the existence or nonexistence of agency records” itself falls within a FOIA exemption, the agency may “refuse to confirm or deny the existence” of the requested records, a “Glomar” response.The D.C. Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the agencies. Statements made by a State Department spokesman soon after the murder do not foreclose the intelligence agencies from asserting their Glomar responses; the intelligence agencies have logically and plausibly explained why the existence or nonexistence of responsive records is classified information. View "Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Central Intelligence Agency" on Justia Law

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Several utilities that are managed by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), a regional transmission operator, paid for upgrades to the transmission grid. The operative tariff required other utilities who benefitted from these upgrades to share the costs of the expanded network. The tariff, however, also required SPP to invoice the charges monthly and to make adjustments within one year. The reimbursement calculation proved complicated. It took SPP eight years to implement it, during which time SPP did not invoice for the upgrade charges. FERC initially granted SPP a waiver of the tariff’s one-year time bar but later determined it lacked the authority to waive this provision retroactively. FERC’s revised determination meant the utilities that had made substantial outlays for upgrades were denied reimbursement for the eight years that had elapsed.The D.C. Circuit denied petitions for review filed by SPP and a company that sponsored upgrades and has been denied reimbursement. Once a tariff is filed, FERC has no statutory authority (16 U.S.C. 824d(d)) to provide equitable exceptions or retroactive modifications to the tariff. SPP may impose only those charges contained in the filed rate. Because the one-year time bar for billing is part of the filed rate, FERC could not retroactively waive it, even to remedy a windfall for users of the upgraded networks. View "Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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Protect Democracy challenged the National Security Agency’s decision to withhold from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act a memorandum the NSA Deputy Director wrote in 2017, memorializing what was said on a phone call he participated in between then-president Trump and the NSA Director soon after it occurred. According to an account of the phone call in Special Counsel Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump asked the NSA Director whether he could do anything to refute news stories connecting Trump to the Russian government. The NSA cited a FOIA exemption that incorporates privileges available to the government in civil litigation, claiming executive privilege for presidential communications.The district court sustained the privilege claim and denied a request to examine the memo for any segregable passages subject to release under FOIA. The D.C. Circuit affirmed. The government did not waive the privilege when it published in the Mueller Report a description of the conversation. Based on an “in camera” review, the memo falls squarely within the scope of the presidential communications privilege, which applies to the memo in its entirety. “Protect Democracy cannot shrink the scope of the privilege by invoking FOIA’s segregability requirement, even if its FOIA request raises credible allegations of governmental misconduct.” The Mueller Report’s description of the phone call did not waive the privilege, as not all the information in the memo specifically matches the information released in the report. View "Protect Democracy Project, Inc. v. National Security Agency" on Justia Law

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USAID administers the government’s foreign development assistance program. OIG, USAID’s oversight arm, includes Offices of Investigations and of Management. In 2012, OIG hired Marcato to the management office. Marcato frequently alleged misconduct by high-ranking officials, reporting within OIG that officials had doctored reports sent to Congress. She repeated those allegations to Senate staffers, prompting unfavorable media coverage. Marcato interfered with Giacalone's investigative work. Her supervisors met with Marcato to explain a protocol for Marcato in speaking to Giacalone or entering the Investigations workspace. Marcato recorded the meeting on her cell phone, despite a USAID security policy barring the unauthorized use of such a device. Marcato continued to contact Giacalone and violated the protocol several times. She sent e-mails that prompted concern over disclosures of sensitive information. An investigation of Marcato’s conduct, including her e-mail disclosure, cell phone recording, and failure to follow the communications protocol, was conducted by the OIG of the Defense Department because Marcato “self-identified as a whistleblower.” Defense substantiated four instances of misconduct. Marcato’s removal noted that Marcato’s disclosures “could have jeopardized the integrity” of an ongoing criminal investigation” and that confidence in Marcato had been “irreparably damaged.”The D.C. Circuit affirmed the Merit Systems Protection Board's rejection of her claims under the Whistleblower Protection Act. A federal agency may defend an adverse personnel action taken against a whistleblower by showing that it would have taken the same action in the absence of any protected disclosures. View "Marcato v. United States Agency for International Development" on Justia Law

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Cause, a nonprofit organization committed to government transparency and openness, submitted a FOIA request, 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(3)(A), for the internet browsing histories of several senior agency officials over a specified period of approximately six months. The requests included two officials by name—Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mulvaney and USDA Secretary Perdue—and two by position. OMB acknowledged receiving the request but never processed it. USDA denied the request, explaining that the browsing histories were not integrated into its record system, so the Department did not have sufficient control over the browsing histories such that they constituted “agency records” under FOIA. Cause filed suit. The district court granted the agencies summary judgment.The D.C. Circuit affirmed. The term “agency records” extends only to those documents that an agency both creates or obtains and controls at the time of the FOIA request. The agencies did not “control” the requested documents to the extent required for them to constitute agency records because agency personnel did not read or rely upon the browsing histories. OMB and USDA employees have significant control over the browsing histories, which they could freely delete; the agencies did not use the officials’ browsing histories for any purpose, much less a purpose connected to decision-making. View "Cause of Action Institute v. Office of Management and Budget" on Justia Law

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Under the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act, the Secretary of Transportation must promulgate regulations requiring certain railroad carriers to “develop a railroad safety risk reduction program,” 49 U.S.C. 20156(a)(1)(A)), within a specified time frame, The Secretary delegated this regulatory authority to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which was required to conduct a study to determine whether it is in the public interest to withhold from discovery in litigation information gathered for implementation or evaluation of a risk reduction program. The FRA selected the Baker Botts law firm to conduct that study. Baker Botts concluded that it is in the public interest to protect the safety information railroads gather for risk reduction programs from discovery and use in litigation.In 2020 the FRA issued the Risk Reduction Program Final Rule (RRP Rule), mandating that each qualifying railroad establish and implement a risk reduction program with specified requirements. The FRA acknowledged that although the Act requires a risk reduction program to include a fatigue management plan, such plans were not addressed in this rulemaking and would be elaborated in a separate rulemaking. The FRA recently issued a notice of proposed rulemaking regarding fatigue management plans. The RRP Rule protects specific safety information railroads compile or collect from discovery and admissibility.The D.C. Circuit upheld the RRP, rejecting arguments by labor unions and attorneys representing railroad employees that it was untimely, arbitrary, and based on a study conducted by a biased contractor. View "Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Tranportation Workers v. e Federal Railroad Administration" on Justia Law

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Entergy, a public utility holding company, owns five operating companies that sell electricity in four states, including Louisiana. The companies have been governed by an agreement requiring them to act as a “single economic unit” and requiring “rough equalization” of their production costs. In 2005, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) determined that the production costs were not roughly equal and imposed a “bandwidth remedy”: Whenever the yearly production costs of an individual operating company deviated from the average by more than 11%, companies with lower costs were required to pay companies with higher costs as necessary to bring all five companies within that range. Entergy filed a tariff establishing a formula to calculate production costs subject to the bandwidth remedy, which FERC largely accepted.Utilities often spread their recovery of large, non-recurring costs by creating a regulatory asset, a type of credit. The company then amortizes the asset in later years, creating debits chargeable to customers. Historically, the Entergy companies recorded regulatory assets and their related amortization expenses in FERC accounts not referenced in the bandwidth formula; this effectively accounted for deferred production costs when they were incurred, rather than when the related amortization expenses were recorded. FERC rejected that approach and excluded purchased-power costs that a Louisiana affiliate incurred in 2005 and amortized in 2008 and 2009.The D.C. Circuit denied the Louisiana Public Service Commission’s petition for review. The Federal Power Act requires electric utilities to charge “just and reasonable” rates. 16 U.S.C. 824d(a). If FERC finds a rate unreasonable, it may establish a just and reasonable rate; FERC may reallocate production costs under the Entergy system agreement, including by ensuring compliance with the bandwidth remedy. View "Louisiana Public Service Commission v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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The FCC regulates facilities and devices that transmit radio waves and microwaves, including cell phones and facilities for radio, TV, and cell phone communications, 47 U.S.C. 302a(a). Radio waves and microwaves are electromagnetic energy, “radiofrequency” that move through space, as “RF radiation.” RF radiation at sufficiently high levels can heat human body tissue, resulting in “thermal” effects. Exposure to lower levels of RF radiation might also cause other biological effects.The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to account for the environmental effects of their proposed actions; a “major Federal action” requires an environmental impact statement, 42 U.S.C. 4332(C). If it is unclear whether a proposed action will “significantly affect[] the quality of the human environment,” the agency may prepare a limited environmental assessment. An agency may also use “categorical exclusions.” Pursuant to NEPA, the FCC has guidelines for human exposure to RF radiation, last updated in 1996. In 2013, the FCC issued a notice of inquiry regarding the adequacy of its guidelines and sought comments on five issues in response to changes in the ubiquity of wireless devices and in scientific standards and research. In 2019, the FCC issued a final order, declining to undertake any of the changes contemplated in the notice of inquiry.The D.C. Circuit remanded. The FCC failed to provide a reasoned explanation for its determination that its guidelines adequately protect against the harmful effects of exposure to radiofrequency radiation unrelated to cancer. View "Environmental Health Trust v. Federal Communications Commission" on Justia Law

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The Randolph-Sheppard Act (RSA) gives licensed blind individuals priority to operate vending facilities on federal property, 20 U.S.C. 107(b). The Secretary of Education promulgates implementing regulations and designates state agencies to administer the program. The RSA includes a grievance scheme for vendors to challenge a state’s operation of its Randolph-Sheppard program through the state licensing agency. A licensee dissatisfied with the results of the state’s hearing may seek further review before the Secretary, who must “convene a panel to arbitrate the dispute.” In the District of Columbia, the designated licensing agency is the Rehabilitation Services Administration.The plaintiffs, current and former vendors in the District’s Randolph-Sheppard program, claim that the District discriminated against them, based on their blindness, specifically by discriminatory inspections of vending facilities and failing to provide aids such as human or electronic readers. The plaintiffs did not pursue the Randolph-Sheppard grievance procedure but filed a lawsuit, claiming disability-based discrimination under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act. The district court dismissed the case for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The D.C. Circuit affirmed. The plaintiffs had to proceed through the RSA grievance procedure before pursuing their discrimination claims in court; no futility exception could apply here. View "Patten v. District of Columbia" on Justia Law

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UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage insurers challenged the Overpayment Rule, promulgated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) under 42 U.S.C. 1301-1320d-8, 1395-1395hhh, in an effort to trim costs. The Rule requires that, if an insurer learns that a diagnosis submitted to CMS for payment lacks support in the beneficiary’s medical record, the insurer must refund that payment within 60 days. UnitedHealth claims that the Overpayment Rule is subject to a principle of “actuarial equivalence,” and fails to comply. Two health plans that pay the same percentage of medical expenses are said to have benefits that are actuarially equivalent.The D.C. Circuit rejected the challenge. Actuarial equivalence does not apply to the Overpayment Rule or the statutory overpayment-refund obligation under which it was promulgated. Reference to actuarial equivalence appears in a different statutory subchapter from the requirement to refund overpayments; neither provision cross-references the other. The actuarial-equivalence requirement and the overpayment-refund obligation serve different ends. The actuarial-equivalence provision requires CMS to model a demographically and medically analogous beneficiary population in traditional Medicare to determine the prospective lump-sum payments to Medicare Advantage insurers. The Overpayment Rule, in contrast, applies after the fact to require Medicare Advantage insurers to refund any payment increment they obtained based on a diagnosis they know lacks support in their beneficiaries’ medical records. View "UnitedHealthcare Insurance Co v. Becerra" on Justia Law