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Animal Legal Def. Fund v. USDA, No. 17-03903, 2018 WL 2387812 (N.D. Cal. May 25, 2018) (Hamilton, J.)


Animal Legal Def. Fund v. USDA, No. 17-03903, 2018 WL 2387812 (N.D. Cal. May 25, 2018) (Hamilton, J.)

Re:  Request for records related to medical inspection of tiger named Tony

Disposition:  Granting defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment; denying plaintiff's motion for summary judgment

  • Litigation Considerations, Jurisdiction:  The court relates that "[p]laintiff does not dispute that, at this stage, it advances only a claim challenging defendants' policy or practice of interpreting the expedited review procedures in Section 552(a)(6)(E)(v)(1) of the FOIA to exclude Tigers; plaintiff does not advance any argument about its particular request for records related to Tony."  "Rule 8 requires 'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'"  "Here, plaintiff alleged that defendants failed to properly expedite a records request based on a consistent, repeatable legal position that defendants have asserted; plaintiff sought a declaration from the court that the statute applies to nonhuman animals; and plaintiff sought a permanent injunction requiring defendants to apply the statute to nonhuman animals in all cases – not just to Tony."  "The court finds that plaintiff sufficiently pled a policy or practice claim under Rule 8."  Specific to FOIA, the court decides that "[a]lthough plainly removing jurisdiction to review 'an agency denial . . . of a request . . . after . . . a complete response', the statute does not so cleanly apply when considering a challenge to an agency’s broader policy or practice pursuant the court's equitable powers."  "A plaintiff must have standing to bring the claim, which requires showing that 'the agency's FOIA violation was not merely an isolated incident' and that 'the plaintiff himself has a sufficient likelihood of future harm by the policy or practice.'"  Finally, the court finds that "'[p]laintiffs have a number of ways to prove that the agency's FOIA violation was not an isolated event[,]'" "plaintiff has shown it was personally harmed[,]" and "plaintiff has shown it faces a likelihood of future harm by defendants' policy or practice."
  • Procedural Requirements, Expedited Processing:  The court considers the question of "[w]hether Tony the Tiger [i]s an '[i]ndividual' [u]nder the [s]tatute" and holds that "[the] ordinary, common meaning fits naturally with a plain reading of the statute: a request for records is expedited in the face of imminent threat to the life or physical safety of a human being."  "This is not to say that the word 'individual' invariably means 'natural person' when used in a statute."  "Congress remains free, as always, to give the word a broader or different meaning."  "But before we will assume it has done so, there must be some indication Congress intended such a result."  "The court recognizes that the plain meaning of Section 552(a)(6)(E)(v)(I) has potentially unforeseen and troubling consequences."  "Because defendants are administrative bodies with responsibilities primarily relating to nonhuman animals, Congress may have nearly excused them from the FOIA's expedited review requirements without specifically intending to do so."  "The proper solution, if any, is for Congress to alter the statute's text – not for this court to do so."
Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Litigation Considerations, Jurisdiction
Procedural Requirements, Expedited Processing
Updated December 2, 2021