Federal Court Dismisses Farm Groups' Data Privacy Lawsuit

January 28, 2015 | Roger A. McEowen

American Farm Bureau Federation, et al. v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, et al., No. 13-1751 ADM/TNL Civil No. 13-1751 ADM/TNL, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9106 (D. Minn. Jan. 27, 2015).  

Two farm-related organizations, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers' Council, sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Administrative Procedures Act to bar EPA's release of member information involving physical addresses and details concerning the members' operation of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).  Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), CAFO information involving location and certain operational details must be made public as a condition of obtaining a Natdional Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.  An NPDES permit must be obtained to operate the CAFO. 

In 2012, the EPA received Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from several environmental groups seeking CAFO information. In response, EPA released comprehensive data providing precise CAFO locations, animal type and number of head, and personal contact information, including names addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of CAFO owners.  Before the release of information, the Department of Homeland Security had informed EPA that the release of such personal and confidential information could constitute a domestic security risk.  Such personal business information is specifically exempted form disclosure under FOIA under enumerated exemptions No. 4 and No. 6.  The defendants (EPA and intervening activist groups) argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue due to the plaintiffs having not suffered injury or facing the imminent threat of injury. 

The plaintiffs argued that they would be injured and that at least one member had already been physically invaded.  However, the court determined that the plaintiffs failed to establish standing because they failed to demonstrate an actual or imminent injury, framing the issue as one over "loss of control of their personal information."  The court then reasoned that the potential release concerned information that was already publicly available and was easily accessible via the Web.  The court noted that the one party that had suffered injury sustained it before the EPA responded to the FOIA request.  The court failed to address, however, the obvious question of why the activist groups filed a FOIA request for (what the court stated was) information that was already publicly and readily available.