Federal Appeals Court Reinstates Lawsuit Challenging USDA Secrecy on Animal Welfare Act Records
Animal protection coalition wins important victory in fight to restore animal welfare databases
San Francisco, California – Today the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in favor of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the nation’s preeminent legal advocacy organization for animals, in an appeal challenging the dismissal of a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for removing tens of thousands of animal welfare records from the agency’s website.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund leads a coalition — including Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, Companion Animal Protection Society and Animal Folks — that filed the lawsuit in February 2017.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, which dismissed the lawsuit in August 2017, and remanded the case back to District Judge William H. Orrick to determine whether the USDA’s database removals were legal.
“The public’s access to USDA animal welfare records is crucial for protecting animals, and is also required by the law. Without these records, advocates cannot effectively hold accountable roadside zoos, puppy mills, circuses, research laboratories, and other institutions that exploit and harm animals,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “We look forward to proceeding with this lawsuit, and ultimately restoring the USDA records as required by law.”
The lawsuit argues that the USDA’s decision to remove the records previously posted in the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) database violates the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The removed documents include records relating to violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) at thousands of research laboratories, roadside zoos and puppy mills across the country. The coalition used these records to advocate for stronger animal protection policies, confront the USDA over inadequate regulation of substandard facilities, supply evidence for law enforcement action and build legal cases against egregious violators.
FOIA requires that agencies make available in a reading room important types of documents, including final agency opinions, orders, and frequently requested records. Reading rooms — formerly actual rooms with reading material filed for review — have been replaced by “electronic” reading rooms, in the form of website and document databases, like the APHIS databases that USDA took down.
The coalition’s appeal argued that FOIA authorizes courts to order agencies to comply with the reading room requirement — and that asserting otherwise as the district court did is effectively, and contrary to law, to erase the reading room requirement from the statute.
The organizations are represented pro bono by Margaret Kwoka, Associate Professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
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