Updated: Jul 23, 2020
By Sarah Everhart
In 2013, four organizations filed numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for personal information such as home mailing addresses, GPS farm coordinates, phone numbers, and personal email addresses of thousands of farmers in 29 states. When the EPA released the information, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) brought suit against the EPA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, challenging the information’s release. The Minnesota court ruled in favor of the EPA but last month, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the ruling and ruled in favor of the AFBF, the NPPC, and farmer privacy. See the link to the full decision.
The AFBF and the NPPC argued that farms and ranches are different from typical businesses in that information divulged typically leads to the home residence of a farm or ranch family. The EPA argued the information was not protected by FOIA because some of it was available online on state agency websites. In February 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota agreed with the EPA and held the EPA was free to publicly release the same information under FOIA. The Minnesota court also dismissed the case, saying the AFBF and the NPPC didn’t have standing in the case because the information release did not hurt the plaintiffs. To have standing to bring a case, the plaintiff must have an injury the court can redress. To learn more about standing to bring a federal case, read this past post.
The 8th Circuit unanimously disagreed with the Minnesota court’s decision on standing and found the EPA indeed violated the FOIA. To explain its decision on standing, the Circuit Court explained the injury is the EPA’s non-consensual disclosure of personal information. That injury was caused by EPA’s actual and threatened disclosures, and can be redressed by an order requiring EPA to refrain from future disclosures and by recalling the previously disclosed information. The 8th Circuit Court did not accept the EPA’s argument that the information was public because it was available on state agency websites, finding “[a]n individual’s interest in controlling the dissemination of information regarding personal matters does not dissolve simply because that information may be available to the public in some form.”
While FOIA gives the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency, there are exempted categories of information an agency is not required to disclose. One such exemption is “personnel and medical files and similar files” if disclosing such information “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The Appeals Court found the EPA’s release of the personal information about farmers would violate the privacy of the farmers while contributing little in the way of public interest.
The case now goes back to the U.S. District Court, where the remaining question is whether the AFBF and the NPPC can obtain an injunction to prevent future releases of farmers’ and ranchers’ personal information.
If you would like to hear more about the subject of farmer privacy, check out Paul’s podcast.