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Multi AG Media LLC v. Dep't of Agric.

United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

September 24, 2007, Argued; February 15, 2008, Decided

No. 06-5231

Opinion

 [*1226]  [**3]   GRIFFITH, Circuit Judge: ] Under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), "an agency must disclose all records requested by 'any person,' 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3), unless the information sought falls within a specific statutory exemption. 5 U.S.C. § 552(d)." Nat'l Ass'n of Retired Fed. Employees v. Horner, 279 U.S. App. D.C. 27, 879 F.2d 873, 874 (D.C. Cir. 1989). Multi Ag Media LLC ("Multi Ag"), a commercial vendor of agricultural data, has made FOIA requests for various records of farm data maintained by the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"). Invoking FOIA Exemption 6, which protects individual privacy interests in government records, USDA has withheld  [***2] some of the requested information. Because there is a significant public interest in disclosure that outweighs the personal privacy interest USDA seeks to protect, we reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of USDA.

Within USDA, the Farm Service Agency ("FSA") is the principal agency charged with promoting a stable and abundant American food supply. FSA meets this responsibility, in part, by offering subsidies and other financial assistance to farms. To qualify for FSA's benefits, farmers must submit information about their operations to a local FSA office. The information includes data on each farm's agricultural practices, acreage, soil, crops, livestock, and geographical location.

On July 13, 2005, Multi Ag submitted a FOIA request to USDA seeking release of thirteen databases maintained by FSA relevant to its agricultural subsidy and benefit programs. FSA processed the request and released some information, but withheld other information on the ground that it contained private information about individual farmers protected by FOIA Exemption 6. Pressing its claim for the withheld information, Multi Ag exhausted its administrative appeals within USDA without  [***3] success, then filed suit in the district court. The district court sided with Multi Ag in ordering the disclosure of requested information in two of the files, but also partly granted USDA's motion for summary judgment and allowed the agency to withhold information in two other files, the Compliance File and the Geographic Information System ("GIS") database. Multi AG Media LLC v. USDA, No. 05-01908, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55170, 2006 WL 2320941, at *5-7 (D.D.C. 2006). Multi Ag appeals that decision. 1 The Compliance File is a massive database with information on crops and field acreage for hundreds of thousands of individual farms across the country. It contains crop data that agricultural producers report to FSA to establish their eligibility for the government's subsidy and benefit programs. In response to Multi Ag's FOIA request, USDA withheld information on irrigation practices, farm acreage, and the number and width of rows of tobacco and cotton. The district court concluded that this information was protected by FOIA Exemption 6 because its disclosure "would reveal financial information associated with an individual . . . without shedding any light on the government's activities." 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55170, [WL] at *5.

The GIS database provides farm data on a digitized aerial photograph. USDA uses GIS as part of a system that combines Global Positioning System technology and aerial photographs to calculate acreage, identify crop types, and create maps of  [*1227]   [**4]  farmland. The GIS database helps FSA verify farm features and thereby monitor compliance with regulations governing farm benefits. It also provides more specific information regarding the location of farms than do FSA's other files, which provide only general state and county location information. Declaration of Robin Wieland, P 61 (February 15, 2006) ("Wieland Declaration") (stating that the GIS database provides a "specific geographic reference"). USDA released much of the GIS database to Multi Ag, but withheld information on farm, tract, and boundary identification, calculated acreage, and characteristics of the land such as whether it is erodible, barren, or has water or perennial snow cover. The district court concluded that because this information  [***5] reveals details of land ownership, its disclosure would compromise a substantial privacy interest, but that disclosure would serve no public interest because the information would not "reveal anything about what the government is up to." Multi AG Media LLC, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55170, 2006 WL 2320941, at *6-7.

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515 F.3d 1224 *; 380 U.S. App. D.C. 1 **; 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 3226 ***

MULTI AG MEDIA LLC, APPELLANT v. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, APPELLEE

Prior History:  [***1] Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (No. 05cv01908).

Multi AG Media LLC v. Dep't of Agric., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55170 (D.D.C., Aug. 9, 2006)

CORE TERMS

disclosure, Exemption, farms, files, Compliance, database, public interest, privacy interest, farmers, subsidy, crop, district court, privacy, records, financial information, personal privacy, withheld, acreage, invasion, argues, benefit program, de minimis, disclosing, programs, agricultural, Employees, withhold, unwarranted invasion, personal finances, business record

Administrative Law, Freedom of Information, Methods of Disclosure, General Overview, Compliance With Disclosure Requests, Defenses & Exemptions From Public Disclosure, Enforcement, Burdens of Proof, Civil Procedure, Appeals, Standards of Review, De Novo Review, Judicial Review, Standards of Review, Summary Judgment Review, Medical & Personnel Files, Commercial Information & Trade Secrets, Evidence, Inferences & Presumptions, Presumptions, Creation