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Smith v. U.S. Federal Aviation Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 2, 2015

STEVEN SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

ORDER AND FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATION

THOMAS M. COFFIN, Magistrate Judge.

Prose plaintiff, Steven Smith, brings this Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) proceeding against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seeking material responsive to his requests for information regarding low altitude overflights near his home and local airport in Roseburg, Oregon.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs home is located on a mountain ridge to the west of the Roseburg airport. The airport's runway is situated north to south. It appears that plaintiffs motivation in bringing this case is his belief that it is never necessary for planes to fly over his home in order to takeoff or land. Plaintiff alleges that the overflights violate 14 C.F.R. ยง 91-119(c) because they are closer than 500 feet to his home.

While plaintiff acknowledges that overflights of less than 500 feet are permitted when necessary for takeoff and landing, he doubts that the FAA is correct that flights over his home are necessary for takeoff or landing. Plaintiff alleges that he has watched many planes simply take a short cut over his home to practice takeoff and landings. However, this action is not about whether the overflights violate any regulations, this action is about whether plaintiff has been denied access to records to which he is entitled. Plaintiffs voluminous briefing and objections to conclusions of various agency officials demonstrates attempts to use FOIA, not as tool to obtain existing documents, but as an attempt to engage the FAA in an argument about its conclusions and convince the agency he is correct.

Plaintiff alleges that the primary focus of his FOIA request is to discover the factual basis for defendant's conclusion that overflights of his home at less than 500 feet are necessary. To that end, FOIA provides an avenue to obtain existing documents, but it does not mandate document creation. See Hudgins v. IRS, 620 F.Supp. 19, 21 (D.D.C. 1985); aff'd 808 F.2d 137 (D.C.Cir. 1987) (FOIA does not require an agency to answer questions disguised as a FOIA request or to create documents or opinions in response to an individual's request for information). Once viewed in this light, the case is a far simpler matter than plaintiffs never-ending objections and briefing indicate. Plaintiffs dissatisfaction with the FAA's interpretation of applicable regulations has no bearing on whether the agency has complied with FOIA by providing all non-exempt documents responsive to his requests. As discussed below, the court should find that defendant has conducted an adequate search to uncover all relevant documents. In addition, to the extent the FAA has withheld relevant documents, it has provided an adequate explanation justifying exemption from disclosure.

Roseburg has an uncontrolled airport with no FAA physical presence. Consequently, the FAA has no records regarding persons flying to or from the airport or aircraft operations. In addition, there is no requirement for filing a flight plan with the FAA regarding the practice flights of which plaintiff complains. The traffic pattern of the airport is below radar coverage. Nonetheless, the FAA searched relevant complaint investigation files related to plaintiffs complaints about the flight school planes in an effort to respond to the following requests made by plaintiff:[1]

(1) September 14, 2013 Letter (FOIA Requests Nos. 2014-001089 and 2014-003722)

Plaintiff sought information regarding low overflights of his horne by aircraft from the Roseburg Airport and requested copies of all reports pertaining to the Portland Flight Standards District Office's (PDX FSDO) visit to the Roseburg Airport. The FAA responded on December 11, 2013 by providing a DVD containing pictures taken by FSDO personnel near a vantage point close to plaintiffs home as well as copies of airport operator's business cards. On December 17, 2003, plaintiff complained that he did not feel all documentation had been provided.[2] On February 14, 2014, the FAA responded that no other responsive records existed.[3]

2. October 11, 2013 Letter/November 6, 2013 Letter (FOIA Request No. 2014-001120)

Plaintiff sought "all documents in files #CNM0920130017, #CNM09020130056 and #CNM0920130061." The FAA sought clarification and plaintiff responded by supplementing his request seeking

all correspondence and communications contained in files #CNM0920130017 #CNM09020130056 and #CNM0920130061 or any other location regarding my reports of low-level flying including but not limited to all correspondence and communication related to any claim or contention by the Federal Aviation Administration that the Office of Regional Counsel is not aware of files #CNM0920130017, #CNM09020130056 and #CNM0920130061 as described above and in your letter of October 28, 2013.

Exhibit 10 to Motion for Summary Judgement (#34-10).

After Regional Counsel's Office discovered that the numbers referred to local tracking by the PDX FSDO, the FAA released 75 pages of documents on February 28, 2014 with limited redaction pursuant to FOIA exemption 6.[4] The FAA later assigned the request to its Aviation Data Systems branch and on April 1 and 3, 2014, released further records identifying the subject complaint number ...


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