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Eil v. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

September 16, 2016

PHILIP EIL, Plaintiff,


          JOHN J. McCONNELL, JR., United States District Judge.

         Philip Eil, an award-winning freelance journalist, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)[1] request with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seeking copies of all the exhibits the government had introduced in the criminal trial of Dr. Paul H. Volkman. The government initially objected to producing any documents but eventually produced some of the requested documents, most of them heavily redacted. Mr. Eil filed this complaint in order to obtain unredacted copies of the produced exhibits and copies of the remaining non-produced exhibits. Because this Court finds that the public interest in disclosure can be accomplished while safeguarding many of the privacy interests of those involved, the Courts GRANTS Philip Eil's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15) and DENIES the DEA's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 16).


         The United States government charged Dr. Volkman in a 22count indictment with a variety of drug related charges.[2] In announcing the indictment, the government alleged that Dr. Volkman "handed out more than 1, 500, 000 pain pills between October 2001 and February 2006, " made $3, 087, 500 from this scheme, and caused the "the deaths of at least 14 people." The government proclaimed that the "indictment serves as a warning to all medical professionals that if you illegally prescribe medication for personal gain you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." (ECF No. 15-4).

         The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio held a public jury trial of Dr. Volkman in March 2011. At that trial, the government presented 70 witnesses and introduced more than 220 exhibits. Most of these exhibits were the medical records of former patients of Dr. Volkman. The government never sought to have these records sealed, and it did not redact the names or any other personally identifiable information of Dr. Volkman's former patients from the records. The trial court on its own never sealed the records or required the redaction of personally identifiable information from the exhibits.

         After an eight-week trial, the jury convicted Dr. Volkman of 20 of the 22 counts brought against him. The court sentenced him to four consecutive life terms of imprisonment. Dr. Volkman appealed his sentence to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The Sixth Circuit twice denied his appeal.[3]

         Since shortly after the trial, [4] Mr. Eil has sought access to copies of the admitted trial exhibits used to convict Dr. Volkman. Dr. Volkman was a college and medical school classmate of Mr. Eil's father. Mr. Eil was "intrigued" by the question of how Dr. Volkman, "with a MD/PhD from the University of Chicago [could] turn into, according to the government's allegations, a prodigious drug dealer and medical mass-murderer." (ECF No. 15-1 at 2 n. 1). After making this criminal prosecution the subject of his thesis project for the nonfiction-writing program at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Mr. Eil decided to write a book on his investigation of Dr. Volkman's prosecution and conviction.

         The uncontroverted evidence in this case reveals that Mr. Eil requested access to the Volkman trial exhibits from the Clerk of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, the Clerk of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, lead prosecutor Assistant United States Attorney Timothy D. Oakley, and trial Judge Sandra S. Beckwith. Each of these people denied Mr. Eil's request for the trial exhibits. Both A.U.S.A. Oakley and Judge Beckwith instructed or assured Mr. Eil that FOIA was the proper avenue for accessing these materials. Following this advice, Mr. Eil filed a FOIA request on February 1, 2012, with the Executive Office of the United States Attorneys ("EOUSA"). Nine months later, the EOUSA transferred the request to the Defendant, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

         Mr. Eil requested copies of the 220 trial exhibits that the government had admitted into evidence, consisting of approximately 15, 000 pages. In total, the DEA partially released 3, 813 pages of information, and the government largely redacted many of those pages. These productions represent about twenty-five percent of the pages admitted as full exhibits. Withholding the bulk of the materials, the DEA asserts privacy concerns for the individuals whose records the government had admitted at trial.[5]

         Specifically, the government redacted from the trial exhibits the following:

• Identifying information of third parties, including names, social security numbers, addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth or death, medical and tax record numbers, insurance information, employment information, and other particularly unique and sensitive personal and medical information, pursuant to § 552(b)(6) and (b)(7)(C);
• Identifying information of criminal investigators, pursuant to § 552(b)(6), (b)(7)(C) and (b)(7)(f); and
• DEA numbers, pursuant to § 552(b)(7)(e).[6]
Additionally, the DOJ withheld in their entirety:
• Medical records of individuals named in the transcript of the Volkman trial, pursuant to § 552(b)(6) and (b)(7)(C);
• Detailed autopsy and toxicology reports, reports of post-mortem exams, and photographs of deceased patients, pursuant to § 552(b)(6) and (b)(7)(C); and
• Tax records of an individual, pursuant to § 552(b)(7)(C).

         (ECF No. 15-1 at 7-8), PROCEDURE

         Mr. Eil filed this Complaint in March 2015 against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. (ECF No. l). He seeks a declaration that the DEA wrongfully withheld and redacted documents, an injunction ordering the DEA to provide access to the requested documents, and an award of costs and attorney's fees pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E). Id. at 11. The parties agreed that this matter should be resolved through the filing of cross motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 15, 16), to which both parties responded. (ECF Nos. 18, 19). This Court held a hearing on the cross-motions on August 3, 2016.


         "FOIA is one of the central tools to create transparency in the Federal government. FOIA should be a valuable mechanism protecting against an insulated government operating in the dark, giving the American people the access to the government they deserve." (ECF No. 15-37 at 3).

         Public scrutiny of the workings of government-including the judiciary-is vitally important to the proper functioning of our democracy. NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co.,437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978). Because of this importance, FOIA "presumes public entitlement to agency information." Providence Journal Co. v. U.S. Dep't of Army,981 F.2d 552, 556 (1st Cir. 1992). "By establishing a presumption in favor of agency disclosure, Congress aimed to 'expose the operations of federal agencies to public scrutiny."' Stalcup v. CIA,768 F.3d 65, 69 (1st Cir. 2014) (quoting Providence Journal, 981 F.2d at 556). FOIA provides, with exceptions, that "each agency, upon any request for records which (i) reasonably describes such records and (ii) is made in accordance with ...

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