Law School Case Brief
Food Mktg. Inst. v. Argus Leader Media - 139 S. Ct. 2356
Congress has instructed that the disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Act do not apply to confidential private-sector commercial or financial information in the government’s possession.
Respondent Argus Leader Media filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), seeking the names and addresses of all retail stores that participate in the national food-stamp program--known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)--and each store's annual SNAP redemption data from fiscal years 2005 to 2010. The USDA declined to disclose the store-level SNAP data, invoking FOIA’s Exemption 4, which shields from disclosure “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential,” 5 U. S. C. §552(b)(4). Argus Leader sued the USDA. Following circuit precedent, the District Court employed the “competitive harm” test, under which commercial information cannot be deemed “confidential” unless disclosure is “likely . . . to cause substantial harm to the competitive position of the person from whom the information was obtained.” The court agreed that revealing store-level SNAP data could work some competitive harm, but it could not say that disclosure would cause “substantial competitive harm,” and thus ordered disclosure. Petitioner Food Marketing Institute, a trade association representing grocery retailers, intervened and filed an appeal. The Eighth Circuit affirmed, rejecting the Institute's argument that the court should discard the “substantive competitive harm” test in favor of the ordinary public meaning of the statutory term “confidential.”
(a) Did plaintiff have legal standing to appeal? (b) Was the data requested to be disclosed confidential?
(a) Yes (b) Yes
(a) The trade association had standing to pursue this appeal because disclosure of the contested data likely would cause its member retailers some financial injury that was directly traceable to the judgment ordering disclosure, and a favorable ruling would redress the injury by reversing that judgment; (b) At least where commercial or financial information was both customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy, the information was “confidential” within the meaning of FOIA's Exemption 4. The store-level Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program data at issue was confidential under that construction because the association's retailers customarily did not disclose the data or make it publicly available in any way, and the government had long promised the retailers that it would keep their information private.
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