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Gwich'in Steering Committee v. U.S. Department of Interior

United States District Court, D. Alaska

September 30, 2019

GWICH'IN STEERING COMMITTEE, ALASKA WILDERNESS LEAGUE, DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE, and THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY, Plaintiffs,
v.
U.S DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, U.S. BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT, and U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, Defendants.

          ORDER

          H. Russel Holland United States District Judge

         Defendants’ Motion to Transfer and to Extend Time to Answer or Otherwise Respond

         Defendants move[1] to transfer this case to the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, or in the alternative to extend the time for them to answer or otherwise respond to plaintiffs’ complaint. This motion is opposed.[2] Oral argument has not been requested and is not deemed necessary.

         Background

         Plaintiffs the Gwich’in Steering Committee, the Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, and The Wilderness Society filed the instant action on July 31, 2019. They allege that defendants the U.S. Department of Interior, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), or in the alternative, the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). Plaintiffs allege that “[f]rom December 21, 2018 - March 8, 2019, ” they submitted nine FOIA requests “relating to the implementation of an oil and gas leasing program on the Coastal Plain” of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.[3] Plaintiffs allege that defendants “have exceeded FOIA’s statutory final decision deadlines.”[4] Plaintiffs allege that “[d]efendants have unlawfully withheld records from the public concerning the agency processes related to oil and gas extraction on the Coastal Plain.”[5] Plaintiffs allege that “[d]efendants failed to make any determination within FOIA’s statutory time limits and have not released records in response to [p]laintiffs’ requests” and “have violated FOIA because they failed to notify [p]laintiffs of estimated dates when they expect to complete processing these requests.”[6] Plaintiffs request that the “[c]ourt declare that [d]efendants are in violation of FOIA[, and] compel [d]efendants to immediately produce by a date certain all records responsive to [p]laintiffs’ nine FOIA requests[.]”[7]

         On November 8, 2018, the Defenders of Wildlife filed a FOIA suit in the District of Columbia against the same defendants as are named in this case. This FOIA suit also seeks documents related to the oil and gas leasing program on the Coastal Plain. Although the FOIA requests in the D. C. case are not identical to the FOIA requests involved in this case, there is some overlap. The D.C. case is on a production schedule and the parties are submitting periodic status reports to the court, with the next due on October 7, 2019.[8]

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), defendants now move to transfer this action to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In the alternative, defendants move for an extension of time to file their answer or otherwise respond to plaintiffs’ complaint.

         Discussion

         Section 1404(a) provides that “[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought or to any district or division to which all parties have consented.” “When determining whether a transfer is proper, a court must employ a two-step analysis.” Park v. Dole Fresh Vegetables, Inc., 964 F.Supp.2d 1088, 1093 (N.D. Cal. 2013).

         “A court must first consider the threshold question of whether the case could have been brought in the forum to which the moving party seeks to transfer the case.” Id. FOIA provides:

On complaint, the district court of the United States in the district in which the complainant resides, or has his principal place of business, or in which the agency records are situated, or in the District of Columbia, has jurisdiction to enjoin the agency from withholding agency records and to order the production of any agency records improperly withheld from the complainant.

5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). Thus, this case could have been brought in the District Court for the District of Columbia.

         “If venue would be appropriate in the transferee court, then the court must make an ‘individualized, case-by-case consideration of convenience and fairness.’” Inherent.com v. Martindale-Hubbell, 420 F.Supp.2d 1093, 1098 (N.D. Cal. 2006) (quoting Jones v. GNC Franchising, Inc., 211 F.3d 495, 498 (9th Cir. 2000)). The court considers several factors when deciding convenience and fairness, including

(1) plaintiff’s choice of forum, (2) convenience of the parties, (3) convenience of the witnesses, (4) ease of access to the evidence, (5) familiarity of each forum with the applicable law, (6) feasibility of consolidation of other claims, (7) any local interest in the controversy, and ...

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