Court of Appeals rules that EPA violated privacy of farmers and ranchers

Court of Appeals rules that EPA violated privacy of farmers and ranchers

Ruling was unanimous.

Updated with information from NPPC.

A federal appeals court Friday overruled a lower court decision to throw out a lawsuit brought by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its release to environmental groups of personal information on tens of thousands of farmers.

Related: AFBF, NPPC farmer privacy lawsuit dismissed

The Environmental Protection Agency has violated the personal privacy of tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers, according to a unanimous ruling issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. (Photo: AVNphotolab/Thinkstock)

In late 2015, a U.S. district court dismissed the NPPC-Farm Bureau suit for lack of standing. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in St. Louis unanimously ruled that “the associations have established a concrete and particularized injury in fact traceable to the EPA’s action and redressable by judicial relief.”

“EPA’s release of sensitive, private and personal materials on more than 100,000 farmers and ranchers was an outrageous abuse of its power and trust,” said NPPC President John Weber, a pork producer from Dysart, Iowa. “We are very pleased with the Court of Appeals’ decision to reinstate our lawsuit to prevent the EPA from doing this again.”

The ruling in American Farm Bureau Federation and National Pork Producers Council vs. EPA concerned the federal agency’s 2013 release to three environmental groups of a vast compilation of spreadsheets containing personal information about farmers and ranchers who raise livestock and poultry in 29 states. The case also related to similar personal information from farmers and ranchers in seven additional states that had yet to be released. The information included the names of farmers, ranchers and sometimes other family members, home addresses, GPS coordinates, telephone numbers and emails. EPA claimed that it was required to disclose the information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Related: EPA releases producer information to animal rights groups

After objections from NPPC, the Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups, EPA requested that the activist organizations return the data, but the agency subsequently was prepared to release additional farm information it collected from seven other states. NPPC and the Farm Bureau also objected to the additional release, and in July 2014 filed suit against EPA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, seeking injunctive relief.

The district court dismissed the suit, claiming that neither NPPC nor the Farm Bureau had standing to sue since some of the farm data could be obtained from other sources. The two agricultural organizations appealed the ruling and sought a protective order to prevent release of any farm information while the appeal was pending. The district court did grant the order.

“This was an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy by a federal agency in violation of law,” said AFBF General Counsel Ellen Steen. “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.”

Farm families usually live on the farm and the court took note that EPA’s disclosures in this case could facilitate unwanted contact and harassment of farmers and ranchers by the FOIA requestors and others. According to Steen, “this case assures us that individuals still have a privacy interest in their personal information. The fact that government agencies may have that information and even store it on the Internet does not eliminate the individual’s privacy interest.” According to the court, “EPA’s release of the complete set of data on a silver platter, so to speak, basically hands to the requesters a comprehensive database of their own, whatever their motives might be.”

Related: Farm Bureau continues to push for farmers' privacy

“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,” Steen said. “AFBF will continue to work to ensure that personal information about farmers and ranchers is not disclosed by EPA.”

Source: AFBF, NPPC

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