an award of attorneys' fees and costs unless the Court resolves the legal issues in the case. Such a rule would place a premium on possibly needless litigation while penalizing deserving litigants by denying them their attorneys' fees should they accept a settlement providing them with substantially all the relief they sought. The proper inquiry, then, is not what legal issues the Court decides, but whether Plaintiff was successful and whether that success was a direct result of the lawsuit.
Defendant also cannot claim that its prelitigation settlement negotiations in this case rendered the litigation any less necessary to the receipt of the information. Although the government is to be commended for attempting to settle the case before a suit is filed, the government's obligation to reasonably avoid protracted litigation over possibly moot issues does not end when the complaint is filed. Plaintiff commenced this action only after its FOIA request was denied. The government responded to Plaintiff's action by filing its motion for summary judgment. In that motion and throughout the litigation the government sought to deny Plaintiff access to the information it sought. It contended that its grant of confidentiality to the state precluded disclosure of the information sought by Plaintiff.
The USDA did not need Plaintiff's permission to seek a waiver of confidentiality from the state. The waiver was only obtained after this Court requested that the state agencies show cause why the documents should not be turned over to the Plaintiff. When the Court indicated it would issue such an order the USDA was not receptive to this idea. The USDA reserved its right to appeal the order. It is clear to this Court that the USDA wished to litigate the legal issues at that time. The USDA repeatedly asserted that even if such waivers from the state agencies were procured, it would seek to vindicate its independent interest in not turning over the information. It later chose not to do so.
The Plaintiff should not be denied its attorneys' fees and costs because this Court exercised restraint in resolving the case without reaching novel and complex legal issues which the government pressed it to decide. Since Plaintiff's suit was necessary and was responsible for its obtaining the information requested, it is eligible for reasonable attorneys' fees and costs.
An eligible Plaintiff is "entitled" to attorneys' fees and litigation costs based upon the Court's balancing of the following four factors: (1) the benefit of the release to the public; (2) the commercial benefit of the release to the plaintiff; (3) the nature of the plaintiff's interest; and (4) the reasonableness of the agency's withholding. See Weisberg, 745 F.2d at 1498.
The Plaintiff, in this case is clearly entitled to fees and costs under these factors. Chesapeake was acting as a public watchdog in obtaining this information. The entire public benefits when it has information regarding the use or nonuse of potentially harmful chemicals. In addition, the Plaintiff had no commercial interest in obtaining the information. Rather, it was only attempting to ascertain whether or not the information collected by the USDA indicated that the public as a whole was being subjected to unsafe or unhealthy chemical use. That interest is entirely appropriate for an award of attorneys' fees and costs. The fact is that Plaintiff would not have obtained the important information it requested "but for" its bringing this lawsuit.
Plaintiff is therefore entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys' fees and litigation costs. Since the Defendant does not contest the amount of the fee petition and the charges appear reasonable to the Court, Plaintiff's Fee Petition is granted in the amount of $ 44,373.07.
A separate order accompanies this opinion.
United States District Court
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following court-provided text does not appear at this cite in 785 F. Supp. 1030.
ORDER - March 11, 1992, Filed
Upon consideration of the entire record in the above-captioned matter, Plaintiff's Petition for Attorneys' Fees and Litigation Costs, and Defendant's opposition thereto it is this 10 day of March, 1992 hereby
ORDERED that Plaintiff's Petition for Attorneys' Fees and Litigation Costs is GRANTED and it is
FURTHER ORDERED that Defendant pay Plaintiff $ 44,373.07.
United States District Court
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