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Multi AG Media LLC v. Dep't of Agriculture

August 9, 2006

MULTI AG MEDIA LLC, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Multi Ag Media LLC ("Multi Ag") brings this action against the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, seeking the disclosure of agency records pertaining to the agricultural practices, acreage, soil, crops, and livestock of farms that participate in USDA programs. The USDA has provided Multi Ag with most of the records it requested, but has withheld several others, citing FOIA's Exemption 6, which permits the nondisclosure of certain personal information. Before the court is USDA's motion for summary judgment [#12]. Upon consideration of the motion, the opposition thereto, and the record of the case, the court concludes that the motion must be granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

On July 13, 2005, Multi Ag submitted a FOIA request to the Farm Services Agency ("FSA") of the USDA, seeking the release of database records that FSA maintains pertaining to twelve agricultural subsidy and benefit programs. The request also sought the release of a copy of the Geographic Information System ("GIS") database for the contiguous 48 states. The FSA referred this latter request to the USDA's Aerial Photography Field Office, who decided to release the database in part. FSA processed the request for records pertaining to the twelve programs, announcing on August 8, 2005, that it would release three files in full, release three files in part, withhold five files in full, and make no determination with regard to one other because it was not available.

In response to Multi Ag's appeal of that decision, FSA decided that two files that had initially been released in part should be released in full, that all five files that had been withheld in full should be released in part, and that the file that was previously unavailable for determination should be released in part. Multi Ag submitted two other FOIA requests in October 2005, which resulted in the full release of four files that had been withheld in full initially and released in part on appeal. On February 15, 2006, FSA released some additional information from two files that had been released in part.

Four files are still in dispute: the Livestock Assistance Program file, the Livestock Compensation Program file, the Compliance file, and the GIS database. All files have been released in part, and Multi Ag has brought this action to compel USDA to release the withheld information in full.

II. DISCUSSION

USDA moves for summary judgment, arguing that the withheld information falls within FOIA's Exemption 6, which pertains to "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). The court considers first whether Exemption 6 is applicable to the withheld files; next, whether the "disclosure would compromise a substantial, as opposed to de minimis, privacy interest," Nat'l Ass'n of Retired Federal Employees v. Horner, 879 F.2d 873, 874 (D.C. Cir. 1989) ("NARFE"); and finally, whether, under the appropriate balancing test, "the substantial interest in personal privacy is not outweighed by the public interest in disclosure." Sims v. Cent. Intelligence Agency, 642 F.2d 562, 573 (D.C. Cir. 1980).

A. Standard of Review Under FOIA

"Unlike the review of other agency action that must be upheld if supported by substantial evidence and not arbitrary or capricious, the FOIA expressly places the burden 'on the agency to sustain its action' and directs the district courts to 'determine the matter de novo.'" Dep't of Justice v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 754 (1989) (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(b)). "FOIA reflects a general philosophy of full agency disclosure unless information is exempted under clearly delineated statutory language." Nat'l Ass'n of Homebuilders v. Norton, 309 F.3d 26, 32 (D.C. Cir. 2003). "At all times courts must bear in mind that FOIA mandates a 'strong presumption in favor of disclosure.'" Id. (quoting Dep't of State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164, 173 (1991)). Furthermore, "under Exemption 6, the presumption in favor of disclosure is as strong as can be found anywhere in the act." Wash. Post. Co. v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 252, 261 (D.C. Cir. 1982).

Counterbalancing this strong presumption in favor of disclosure is the principle that "[t]he only relevant public interest in the FOIA balancing analysis is the extent to which disclosure of the information would shed light on an agency's performance of its statutory duties or otherwise let citizens know what their government is up to." Lepelletier v. FDIC, 164 F.3d 37, 46 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (citing Dep't of Defense v. Fed. Labor Relations Auth., 510 U.S. 487, 497 (1994) (quotations and alterations omitted)). That is, FOIA's purpose "is not fostered by disclosure of information about private citizens that is accumulated in various governmental files but that reveals little or nothing about an agency's own conduct." Reporters Comm., 489 U.S at 773.

B. Applicability of Exemption 6

Exemption 6 of FOIA exempts the government from having to release "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." 5 U.S.C. ยง 552(b)(6). To determine whether the USDA properly withheld the documents at issue in this case, the court must first determine whether the withheld files are files similar to personnel and medical files within the meaning of ...


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