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Media Alerts - American Farm Bureau Federation v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Eighth Circuit
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September 26, 2016
  American Farm Bureau Federation v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Eighth Circuit
Headline Eighth Circuit panel reverses district court and holds that the EPA abused its discretion in disclosing personal information of animal feeding operation owners

Area of Law Standing; Privacy

Issue(s) Presented Whether associations had standing to bring suit on behalf of their members, and whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) properly released personal information of concentrated animal feeding operation owners in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Brief Summary The Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters by numerous sources, including concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). As part of its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act, the EPA compiled a national inventory of CAFOs. The EPA obtained the information for the inventory by requesting publically available information from a number of states, by retrieving information from state websites, and by gathering information from federal data systems and its regional offices. The information included the legal name of CAFO owners, along with the owner's mailing address, email address, primary telephone number, and other information about the CAFO and its owner.

As the EPA was compiling this inventory, three organizations submitted a FOIA request for the EPAs records with information about CAFOs. In response, the EPA released the information it had then compiled to the requesters. The information released included personal contact information for the CAFO owners. The American Farm Bureau Federation (Farm Bureau) and National Pork Producers Council (Producers Council) filed a "reverse" FOIA suit, alleging that the records should have been withheld under Exception 6 of FOIA, which excludes from disclosure "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy." 5 U.S.C. ยง 522(b)(6). The district court granted summary judgment for the EPA, holding that the Farm Bureau and Producers Council lacked standing to bring the suit because the personal information of their members was already publicly available when released.

On appeal, a panel of the Eighth Circuit reversed. It held that the district court improperly conflated the requirements of standing with the merits for the claims raised. Whether the information was publically available pertained to the merits of the claim, not the question of standing. Because the individual members of the associations would have standing to challenge the EPAs release of their personal information, regardless of whether that information was publically available, the Farm Bureau and Producers Council also had standing to bring the suit.

Although the district court's decision was ostensibly a ruling on lack of standing, its decision in substance addressed the merits of whether the EPA's disclosure constituted an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy subject to Exception 6 of FOIA. As such, the Eighth Circuit found no reason to remand to the district court for a determination on that question, and considered the merits of the claim as part of this appeal.

The Eighth Circuit disagreed with the district court, and held that the EPA's release of the CAFO owners' personal information was an abuse of discretion. It held that the CAFO owners had a substantial privacy interest in the personal information that was disclosed. It also noted that, even if the information was publically available through state websites and state records requests, there is a vast difference between public records that might be found after a diligent search through various files and a single, compiled set of information from a government agency. Finally, the court held that the substantial privacy interest of the CAFO owners was not outweighed by the public's interest in disclosure.

The Eighth Circuit remanded the case for further proceedings on the plaintiffs' request for injunctive relief.

The full text of the opinion may be found at http://media.ca8.uscourts.gov/opndir/16/09/151234P.pdf

Panel Circuit Judges Colloton, Loken, and Murphy

Date of Issued Opinion September 9, 2016

Decided Reversed and remanded

Docket Number 15-1234

Counsel Michael B. Kimberly for Appellants and Tarah Elizabeth Heinzen and Pamela A. Marentette the Appellees

Author Circuit Judge Colloton

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor Joelle Larson, University of Minnesota Law School

    Posted By: Joelle Larson @ 09/26/2016 10:51 AM     8th Circuit  

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