OMAHA (DTN) -- Personal information about the owners of concentrated animal feeding operations should never have been released by EPA back in 2014, a federal appeals court ruled unanimously Friday. Furthermore, a district court erred in not exempting the release through the Freedom of Information Act, the court ruled.
In its ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis ordered the case be sent back to a district court in Minnesota. That is where the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council had sought injunctive relief, which included requiring a number of environmental groups that were given the information to return it to EPA.
"... The associations have established a concrete and particularized injury in fact traceable to the EPA's action and redress able by judicial relief," the Eighth Circuit said in its ruling.
"We therefore conclude the district court erred in dismissing this case for lack of standing. We further determine that the EPA abused its discretion in deciding that the information at issue was not exempt from mandatory disclosure under Exemption 6 of FOIA."
Exemption 6 excludes the release of information including "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The Eighth Circuit said members of the two farm groups have sufficient evidence the information released caused injury.
"It was undisputed on the motions for summary judgment that the agency has released or will release personal information of association members without their consent as part of its response to the FOIA requests," the court said in its ruling. "That is sufficient to establish a concrete and particularized injury in fact: the nonconsensual dissemination of personal information."
Throughout the legal challenge, EPA argued the information release had not caused injury because the agency pulled the information from public websites of other state agencies, before releasing it to environmental groups.
"This argument, however, rests on the agency's flawed understanding of the plaintiffs' alleged injury in fact," the court said in its ruling. "The asserted injury is the nonconsensual disclosure of personal information by the EPA."
EPA already has released CAFO information from 29 states. The agency has collected similar information from seven other states it had intended to release, as well. The information includes GPS coordinates, financial statuses, addresses and telephone numbers of CAFO owners.
In its ruling, the court provides examples of how environmental groups use the information. On one occasion, the court said, environmental groups entered a private property to take photos they had planned to post online.
"All told, we conclude that the EPA's disclosure of spreadsheets containing personal information about owners of CAFOs would invade a substantial privacy interest of the owners while furthering little in the way of public interest that is cognizable under FOIA," the court said.
The information released involved tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
"This was an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy by a federal agency in violation of law," AFBF General Counsel Ellen Steen said in a statement. "The court's decision is a vindication of the right of farm families to control their own personal information. Farmers and ranchers have a strong privacy interest in their personal information, including their home address, even when they live and work on the farm."
Although the ruling essentially requires the environmental groups to return the information, Steen said farmers already have been hurt.
"EPA now has to 'recall' all of the personal information it unlawfully released, but unfortunately that information has now been in the hands of the FOIA requestors for three years, and many feel that the damage is done," she said. "AFBF will continue to work to ensure that personal information about farmers and ranchers is not disclosed by EPA."
DISTRICT COURT OK'D RELEASE OF SOME INFO
In February 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota ruled that because some of the information had been posted online by state agencies, EPA was free to publicly release the same information under the Freedom of Information Act.
The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council argued in their appeal that farms and ranches are different from typical businesses in that information divulged typically leads to a home residence of a farm or ranch family.
The Minnesota court ruled the agriculture groups didn't have standing in the case because the information release did not hurt the plaintiffs, according to an opinion released by the court.
In 2013, four organizations filed Freedom of Information Act requests for information that included personal farmer information, such as names of family members, in 29 states. The requesters included three environmentally-oriented groups: The Pew Charitable Trust, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earth Justice.
DTN's attempts to reach those groups were unsuccessful.
DTN/The Progressive Farmer also filed a FOIA request in order to learn what information was being given to other FOIA-requesting groups.
The information was released as part of an EPA settlement agreement with environmental groups.
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN
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