Animal Welfare Records Blackout
Animal Legal Defense Fund v United States Department of Agriculture
In 2017, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the United States Department of Agriculture for removing tens of thousands of animal welfare records from the agency’s website. Referred to as the Animal Welfare Blackout.
Victory on appeal
Case remanded for district court
Awaiting scheduling order
In February 2017, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for removing tens of thousands of animal welfare records from the agency’s website. The removed records include enforcement actions taken by the USDA against chronic Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violators, and inspection reports of facilities regulated by the AWA. These documents revealed inhumane treatment of animals at thousands of research laboratories, roadside zoos and puppy mills across the country.
The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California on behalf of a coalition of animal protection organizations, challenges the USDA’s decision to remove the records as violations of both the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The lawsuit contends that the USDA violated FOIA, which requires federal agencies to affirmatively disclose final orders and frequently requested records. It also argues that the USDA violated the APA, which prohibits agencies from taking actions that are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law[.]”
The lawsuit was dismissed by the Northern District of California in August 2017. In September 2017, we filed an appeal of the dismissal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. That appeal is fully briefed and pending oral argument or opinion as of July 2018.
February 18, 2020
Some Records Restored to Database
The USDA restored certain records to the Animal Welfare Act reports database as directed by Congress. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 mandated the restoration of the searchable database and contents that were available on January 30, 2017 and all content generated since that date. The records include AWA inspection reports, animal inventories, “teachable moments,” and final enforcement records.
August 15, 2019
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Reinstates Lawsuit
In a significant victory for government transparency, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the lawsuit’s FOIA claims, holding the statute does provide courts with the authority to order an agency to post certain public records in an online reading room. The panel’s majority wrote about the importance of an enforceable reading room requirement: “We can easily imagine the significant implications of rendering § 552(a)(2) [the reading room provision of FOIA] a dead letter; an agency would have no enforceable duty to post its important staff manuals, or its interpretation of the statute it’s charged with enforcing, or its final opinions in agency adjudication.” The majority also held that the APA claim was improper because FOIA already provides an adequate alternative remedy to enforce the reading room provision.
February 28, 2018
February 23, 2018
Opening Brief Filed
August 25, 2017
USDA Debuts New Limited Database
The USDA posts a limited database that allows users to search for inspection reports and research facility annual reports. However, the new database is significantly limited. For example, it does not contain enforcement action records (official warning letters, stipulations, pre-litigation settlements, and administrative complaints) and identifying information for many of the facilities is blacked out.
August 14, 2017
Lawsuit Dismissed, Coalition Pledges Appeal
U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that FOIA does not provide a remedy to enforce the government’s obligation to publish certain types of records. Specifically, the district court ruled that courts cannot issue injunctions to enforce FOIA’s reading room provision. Originally, reading rooms were actual rooms where government agencies filed records that were available for public inspection and copying. Today, these rooms have been replaced by electronic reading rooms in the form of online databases, like the USDA database at the center of the lawsuit.
The district court additionally dismissed the APA claim on the basis that FOIA’s process for proactively requesting documents provides an adequate remedy – animal protection groups can submit a FOIA request to the USDA for any desired records. But as explained above, relying on proactive FOIA requests creates a significant burden on groups by consuming significant organizational resources and delaying access to the records by months or years.
February 22, 2017
The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s lawsuit contends that the USDA’s decision to remove public access to the databases violated FOIA, which requires agencies to make publicly available certain types of records including final opinions and orders, policy statements, and frequently requested records. The lawsuit also contended that the removal violated the APA, which prohibits agencies from taking actions that are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise no in accordance with law[.]” The USDA itself has acknowledged that the records in question are “frequently requested” and that the database “has been a valuable resource for thousands of stakeholders searching for information about individuals and facilities regulated under the Animal Welfare Act.”
February 6, 2017
Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Response to the USDA Removing Online Animal Welfare Database
February 3, 2017
USDA Removes Animal Welfare Act reports database
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Complaint to USDA submitted February 2022
Complaint to USDA submitted January 2022