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 U.S.Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
In late 2015, a U.S. district court dismissed the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) suit for lack of standing, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, Mo., ruled that “the associations have established a concrete and particularized injury in fact traceable to the EPA’s action and redressable by judicial relief.”
The case stems from the February 2013 release by EPA’s Office of Water to several activist groups, which filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, of extensive private and personal information the agency had collected on farmers in 29 states. EPA gathered the information despite being forced in 2012 to drop a proposed data reporting rule for large farms because of concerns about the privacy and biosecurity of family farms.
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 FOIA.
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.
“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 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 the 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,” Farm Bureau general counsel Ellen Steen said. “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.”
In its unanimous ruling, the Eighth Circuit determined that EPA “abused its discretion in deciding that the information at issue was not exempt from mandatory disclosure under Exemption 6 (personal privacy interests) of FOIA.”
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.”
Steen said, “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. (The Farm Bureau) will continue to work to ensure that personal information about farmers and ranchers is not disclosed by EPA.”