Skip to main content

Telematch, Inc. v. USDA, No. 20-5378, 2022 WL 3330101 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 12, 2022) (Katsas, J.)


Telematch, Inc. v. USDA, No. 20-5378, 2022 WL 3330101 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 12, 2022) (Katsas, J.)

Re:  Request for farm, tract, and customer numbers for farms enrolled in farm subsidy programs

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

  • Exemption 3:  The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit holds that “USDA permissibly withheld the requested farm [and] tract . . . numbers.”  The court relates that “[t]he parties agree that 7 U.S.C. § 8791(b)(2)(B) requires USDA to withhold ‘geospatial information,’ but [the requester] contends that farm and tract numbers are not covered by that term.”  “The district court held that the numbers are geospatial information because they are ‘information referring to a specific physical location on Earth.’”  “[The requester] objects that ‘geospatial information’ means ‘geographic information, or other information about the characteristics of the land, that is either expressly overlayed on, or combined with, an accompanying graphic image (e.g., map, aerial photograph, or digitized image).’”  “Section 8791 does not define ‘geospatial information,’ so [the court] interpret[s] the phrase in line with its ordinary meaning.”  The court finds that “[d]ictionary definitions of the word ‘geospatial’ support the district court’s conclusion that geospatial information includes all information referring to a specific location on earth.”  “Definitions of the phrase ‘geospatial information’ reinforce this conclusion.”  “In 2008, the Federal Geography Data Committee, an interagency committee established by the Office of Management and Budget, defined the term as ‘Information concerning phenomena implicitly or explicitly associated with a location relative to the Earth's surface.’”  “And the Congressional Research Service has defined ‘geospatial information’ as ‘information attached to a location, such as latitude and longitude, or street location.’”  “Farm and tract numbers identify a specific area of farmland in a specific location.”  “They serve as a shorthand reference to individual plots of land.”  “In this respect, they are analogous to a street address or latitude and longitude coordinates.”  “They are therefore ‘geospatial information’ properly withheld under section 8791(b)(2)(B).”  Additionally, the court notes, and discusses, that “[p]recedent from other circuits aligns with this conclusion.”
  • Exemption 6:  The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit holds that “USDA permissibly withheld the requested . . . customer numbers.”  First, the court finds that “[c]ustomer numbers are ‘similar files’ under Exemption 6.”  “Like names, customer numbers correspond to particular farm owners and can be used to ascertain their identities.”  The court then finds that “[t]he release of customer numbers would impair a substantial privacy interest.”  “USDA uses customer numbers in records on land sales, business relationships, crops planted, and the programs in which owners are participating.”  “As we recognized even in the context of farm and tract numbers, the release of such information would ‘allow for an inference to be drawn about the financial situation of an individual farmer,’ which implicates a substantial privacy interest.”  “[The court] recognize[s] that the requested records do not generally identify which farm owner corresponds to a customer number.”  “But there is nonetheless a ‘substantial probability’ that disclosure will interfere with personal privacy, which is enough to trigger the exemption.”  “As for the public interest, [the requester] claims that disclosure would aid in monitoring whether USDA is making accurate benefit and subsidy determinations.”  “In [a previous case,] [the court] concluded that the threat to farmers’ privacy from release of information like customer numbers was not ‘particularly strong,’ and so was outweighed by the ‘significant’ public interest in monitoring USDA’s decisions.”  “However, [the court finds that] section 8791 substantially changes [the court’s] analysis of both sides of the balance.”  “As to privacy, section 8791 reflects a congressional judgment that farmers do have a strong interest in protecting the type of information at issue.”  “It establishes an absolute prohibition on disclosure of information provided by farmers ‘concerning the agricultural operations, farming or conservation practices’ on their land ‘or the land itself.’”  “The statute plainly reflects privacy rather than other concerns, for it permits disclosure upon a farmer’s consent.”  “Release of customer numbers would allow the public to learn much the same information about farmers’ land and operations, so farmers must also have a robust privacy interest in those numbers.”  “As to the public interest, section 8791 permits the release of other information revealing USDA’s activities.”  “In weighing the interests at stake, [the court] must ask whether the ‘incremental value’ of disclosing customer numbers justifies the harm to farmers’ privacy interests.”  “Section 8791 permits release of information about program administration in a ‘statistical or aggregate form’ if no individual farmers are identified.”  “It further allows release of ‘payment information’ under any USDA program, including ‘the names and addresses of recipients.’”  “Taking both points into account, [the court] conclude[s] that the disclosure of customer numbers would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”  “A general interest in monitoring benefit and subsidy determinations, without more, cannot overcome the heightened interest we must now show for farmers’ privacy interests in information about their land and operations.”  “Here, [the requester] has produced no evidence that USDA is doing a poor job of program administration.”  “Nor has it even attempted to explain why the statistical and payment information released by USDA is insufficient to allow public monitoring of the agency’s program eligibility determinations.”  “Along the same lines, [the requester] claims that the disclosure of customer numbers would allow the public to monitor whether farmers are fraudulently obtaining benefits from USDA.”  “But [the requester] has provided no evidence of any significant fraud.”  “And ‘an unsupported suggestion that an agency may be distributing federal funds to a fraudulent claimant’ cannot by itself justify ‘disclosure of private information,’ which would make Exemption 6 a dead letter.”
Court Decision Topic(s)
Court of Appeals opinions
Exemption 3
Exemption 6
Updated September 6, 2022