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Niskanen Ctr. v. FERC, 20 F.4th 787 (D.C. Cir.2021) (Tatel, J.)


Niskanen Ctr. v. FERC, 20 F.4th 787 (D.C. Cir.2021) (Tatel, J.)

Re:  Request for names and addresses of property owners along route of proposed pipeline after FERC made limited disclosure of owners' initials and street names

Disposition:  Affirming district court's grant of government's motion for summary judgment

  • Exemption 6:  The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit holds that "[t]he district court rightly found that more limited disclosure best balanced landowners' privacy and the public interest."  The court finds that "[t]he threshold requirement of a substantial privacy interest 'is not very demanding.'"  "[The court has] consistently found that the privacy interest in an individual's name and address surmounts this low bar."  "True, [the court has] at times observed that 'the disclosure of names and addresses is not inherently and always a significant threat to the privacy of those listed,' and so we must consider 'the characteristic(s) revealed by virtue of being on the particular list, and the consequences likely to ensue.'"  "That said, [the court has] found a significant privacy interest whenever the information sought was of a type that might invite unwanted intrusions, even absent evidence that such intrusions had occurred in the past."  The court takes note of the "[t]he risk of unwanted contact or solicitation here," "[a]nd [finds that] the landowners' privacy interests are more acute than in many Exemption 6 cases because they took no action to avail themselves of any government benefit but instead appear on FERC's lists by mere happenstance of geography."  The court then finds that "[t]he public obviously has a strong interest in whether FERC fulfills its statutory notice obligations."  "But to determine whether it does so, the public has no need for the personal identifying information of affected landowners."  "The court finds that [the requester] offered the court no cogent reason it needed the landowners' full names and addresses."  "The district court thus found that 'initials and street names would be sufficient' to allow [the requester] to determine whether the pipeline company was notifying affected landowners."  "'The addition of the redacted identifying information would not shed any additional light on the Government's conduct of its obligation.'"  "As in other cases where the requesting party 'failed to express' how redacted identifying information would advance public understanding, [the court] agree[s] with the district court that the privacy interests here outweigh the public interest in disclosure."  "[The requester] has given us no basis for disturbing the district court's conclusion that street names and initials would give it all it needs to evaluate FERC's conduct."

    Senior Circuit Judge Randolph writes separately to concur and states that "[t]he potential 'privacy' involved here may be described as the landowners' 'mental repose' and perhaps their 'physical solitude.'"  "That at least is how the district viewed the matter."  "The court thought that the affected landowners' privacy interest was 'in not divulging that a natural-gas pipeline crosses their property . . . to avoid potential protests on their land.'"  "But this prospect is no longer a concern now that the pipeline owners have canceled the project."  "Even so, another privacy interest remains at stake."  "Many organizations were interested in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline."  "Those organizations touting their 'good work' would have every incentive to use the landowner lists to solicit donations, by mail, by telephone or in person."
Court Decision Topic(s)
Court of Appeals opinions
Exemption 6
Updated January 14, 2022