THOMAS W. SIKES, Plaintiff - Appellant,
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY, Defendant-Appellee.
from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 3:16-cv-00074-DHB-BKE
MARTIN, JULIE CARNES, and O'SCANNLAIN, [*] Circuit Judges.
O'SCANNLAIN, Circuit Judge
decide whether the United States Department of the Navy
improperly withheld documents related to the suicide of
Admiral J.M. Boorda in response to a request made under the
Freedom of Information Act.
1996, United States Navy Admiral J.M. Boorda, then Chief of
Naval Operations, committed suicide in Washington, D.C. He
left two suicide notes at his home: one addressed to his
sailors, which the Navy later released publicly, and one to
his wife, which has not been released. These documents were
found by Naval investigators and added to the Navy's
investigative file for Adm. Boorda's death, as were a
number of other documents, including six pages of handwritten
notes regarding official business found in the backseat of
Adm. Boorda's official vehicle (the "backseat
Sikes asserts that he is working on a book about the
pressures of holding military office, in which Adm.
Boorda's death will feature prominently. For years, he
has sought to obtain from the Navy copies of various records
related to Adm. Boorda's suicide, including both the
backseat notes and the suicide note to Adm. Boorda's
August 2011, Sikes filed two requests with the Navy under the
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) asking for certain
documents related to Adm. Boorda. Request 1 asked for a list
of the individuals who were invited to or who attended the
ceremony during which Adm. Boorda took office as Chief of
Naval Operations. The Navy gave Sikes that list but with many
of the names redacted. Request 2 asked for copies of all
documents found by Naval investigators in Adm. Boorda's
vehicle the day he died, including the backseat notes. The
Navy refused to provide those documents, arguing that they
were seized during the course of an investigation and were
therefore not agency records.
2012, Sikes filed suit against the Navy, asking that it be
ordered to produce the documents responsive to Requests 1 and
2. Little over a month into litigation, the Navy gave Sikes
eleven pages of material (including the backseat notes) in
response to Request 2 and moved to dismiss Sikes's
corresponding claim as moot. The district granted the motion,
finding that "all of the documents responsive to
Plaintiff's FOIA Request 2 have been disclosed."
Sikes later asked that the Navy provide some additional
verification that it had indeed given him everything within
the scope of Request 2, but the Navy never provided such
parties continued to litigate Sikes's Request 1 until the
court ultimately granted summary judgment to Sikes and
ordered the Navy to give him an unredacted copy of the
attendee list. See Order Granting Motion for Summary
Judgment in Part at 41, Sikes v. United States, No.
3:12-cv-00045 (S.D. Ga. Dec. 6, 2013) ("Sikes
I"). In April 2014, the court entered final
judgment and awarded Sikes more than $45, 000 in attorneys
fees. Neither party appealed.
2014, Sikes submitted eight more FOIA requests regarding Adm.
Boorda, many of which were redundant. Two requests (5 and 10)
are pertinent to this appeal.
5, submitted on April 30, 2014, asked for another copy of the
records that had been retrieved from Adm. Boorda's car
and given to Sikes in response to his earlier Request 2.
Specifically, Request 5 asked the Navy to "furnish a
complete copy of all material requested by me on August 26,
2011, in [Request 2]." The request also complained that
no Navy official had ever "attested that the material
previously furnished" in response to Request 2
"constituted all of the documents in the
Navy's possession that came within the scope of"
Request 2. In response, the Navy provided no documents to
Sikes, but asserted that a "review of the investigative
file has determined that you have been provided a complete
copy of all documents originally requested via [Request
2]." After Sikes filed an administrative appeal from the
agency's response, the Navy confirmed that it had
"again reviewed the investigative file and determined
that the records provided . . . in response to your request
of August 26, 2011, were complete." The Navy asserted
that FOIA did not require the agency "to conduct
additional searches in response to repetitive requests,"
and further that Sikes's demand for
"certification" of those earlier-disclosed
materials had no basis under the statute.
10, submitted on November 10, 2014, asked for an unredacted
copy of the Navy's 1996 Report of Investigation into Adm.
Boorda's suicide. In response, the Navy gave Sikes a
redacted version of that report. The Navy withheld from the
report a copy of the suicide note Adm. Boorda left at his
home for his wife, citing FOIA privacy exemptions. Sikes
again filed an administrative appeal with the Navy, arguing
that the withholding of the suicide note was improper, but to
September 2016, Sikes filed a second lawsuit against the
Navy, which stated two causes of action for improper
withholding of agency records under FOIA.
respect to Request 5, Sikes alleged that the Navy had
improperly withheld the materials found in Adm. Boorda's
car, including the backseat notes. Sikes's complaint also
detailed why he had requested those materials a second time.
Namely, he alleged that after the Navy gave him the backseat
notes in 2012, he received another memo from the Navy which
stated that it had in fact destroyed such notes in 1998. He
alleged that he thus had reason to believe the Navy's
2012 production of the purported notes was false or
fraudulent. He sought to compel the Navy to give him the
notes once again, so that he could compare them to what he
was given in 2012.
Request 10, Sikes alleged that the Navy had wrongfully
withheld the suicide note Adm. Boorda wrote to his wife. He
alleged two bases for improper withholding. First, he alleged
that the Navy had previously disclosed the note by publishing
a blurry photo of it, and thus could no longer withhold it.
Alternatively, he alleged that the Navy had improperly
withheld the note under FOIA's privacy exemptions,
because public interest in the note outweighed the privacy
interests of Adm. Boorda and his family. He once again
requested that the court compel the Navy to produce an
unredacted version of the suicide note to him.
Navy moved to dismiss Sikes's complaint both for lack of
jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim. The district
court granted the motion, in effect finding that Sikes had
not sufficiently stated a claim for improper withholding of
either the materials from Adm. Boorda's car or the
Sikes's Request 5 claim, the court found that the Navy
had not withheld the materials from Adm. Boorda's car
(let alone improperly), because it had already produced those
same records in response to his earlier Request 2. Regarding
the Request 10 claim, the district court rejected Sikes's
contention that the Navy had previously disclosed the
contents of the suicide note by publishing an illegible photo
it. The court failed to address Sikes's alternative
contention that- even if ...