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Argus Leader Media v. United States Dept. of Agriculture

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Southern Division

September 27, 2012

ARGUS LEADER MEDIA, d/b/a Argus Leader, Plaintiff,

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Jon E. Arneson, Sioux Falls, SD, for Plaintiff.

Stephanie Carlson Bengford, U.S. Attorney's Office, Sioux Falls, SD, for Defendant.



Plaintiff, Argus Leader Media, d/b/a Argus Leader, brought this claim under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain information in the possession of defendant, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Docket 1. After USDA provided some, but not all, of the

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requested information, Argus Leader requested that a Vaughn Index be filed to explain why USDA did not provide the withheld information. Docket 12. USDA resists that motion and claims that a Vaughn Index is not necessary because USDA offered detailed affidavits that sufficiently explained its decision to withhold the information. Docket 15. USDA also moves for summary judgment and argues that its decision to withhold redemption data was appropriate in this case because the material was protected under exemption 3 to the FOIA and should not be released. Docket 18. Argus Leader resists that motion and requests that the redemption data be disclosed because that information is not what Congress meant to exempt under the claimed statute. Docket 33. For the following reasons, USDA's motion for summary judgment is granted.


The relevant facts of this dispute, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party on the motion for summary judgment, Argus Leader Media, d/b/a Argus Leader, are as follows:

On February 1, 2011, Argus Leader emailed a request for specific records to the email address for the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which is an agency of the USDA. USDA enforces the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 (FNA or the Act) in addition to other statutes. The information that Argus Leader requested related to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or what was formerly known as the food stamp program. The request sought SNAP retail store records from 2005 through 2010 that included: each store's identifier or unique ID number, the store name, the store address, the store type, and the yearly redemption amounts or Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT [1]) sales figures for each participating store. Docket 22 ¶ 11.

While FNS administers the FNA and its regulations and standards, the Benefit Redemption Division (BRD) is the component within FNS that oversees the EBT system. Through the EBT system, SNAP recipients receive an EBT debit card that keeps track of their monthly benefits and is the object that gives them access to food and other qualifying items under SNAP. BRD also ensures that only those retailers that qualify to participate in SNAP do so, and it regulates the retailers who are not in compliance with the regulations and policies designated under the program. BRD is responsible for maintaining the EBT system in a manner that ensures it is responsive to its clients, the states it serves, and the federal government.

The specific requested data still at issue is redemption data— all other data was provided to Argus Leader or was deemed nonessential by Argus Leader. Redemption data is the dollar amount of goods that each retailer sells to SNAP beneficiaries and subsequently redeems from the federal government in a given year. It is one type of information that is generated and stored in a technology system overseen by BRD, which is called the Store Tracking and Redemption System (STARS). Redemption data is " only obtained when a retailer is authorized to accept SNAP cards and processes a SNAP transaction." Docket 21 ¶ 20. Redemption data, however, is only generated for each retailer during the time frame that the retailer would be authorized to participate in SNAP. For instance, if a SNAP retailer is authorized

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to participate in the program but makes no EBT sales, then the redemption data amount is $0. Docket 21 ¶ 21.

After receiving Argus Leader's request, FNS contacted BRD to collect the data that Argus Leader sought. BRD conducted a search within the STARS database and gathered records that were pertinent to the request but not subject to a FOIA exemption. BRD produced a CD that contained 321,988 SNAP files viewable on a Microsoft Excel worksheet. FNS sent that CD and a letter to Argus Leader and explained that the agency was not including some of the requested information (like redemption data) because those records were exempt from disclosure pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act Exemptions 3 and 4 and 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3) and (b)(4). Docket 22 ¶ 15. FNS also informed Argus Leader of its right to appeal. Argus Leader contacted a representative for FNS and stated that it had received the letter, but the CD only contained 65,536 retailer records. Argus Leader also requested that FNS resend the information in a text format.

On March 3, 2011, Argus Leader submitted its appeal of FNS's decision to withhold the redemption data, which was filed with the FNS Freedom of Information Act Service Center within the Information Management Branch. The appeal worked its way through internal departments and eventually was submitted for legal review on April 13, 2011. On June 13, 2011, FNS received a letter from Argus Leader stating that it would initiate legal action under FOIA if it did not receive a response to its appeal within ten days. Docket 22 ¶ 26. On July 19, 2011, Argus Leader received an unofficial response from FNS via email that attempted to clarify why the requested information was withheld. Meanwhile, the appeal denial was working its way through the federal system and was prepared for final signatures from those who could officially deny the appeal.

Argus Leader filed its complaint on August 26, 2011, and the denial of Argus Leader's appeal was never sent. Docket 1. Argus Leader moved for a Vaughn Index on March 5, 2012. Docket 12. USDA responded to that motion and stated that its reasons for the denial of specific discovery were already expressed in the documents submitted in this case, and a Vaughn Index was not necessary. Docket 15. USDA also moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether it needed to provide FNS numbers and redemption totals to Argus Leader. Docket 18. The parties reached a stipulation that the issue of FNS numbers was no longer relevant, and the only issue before the court was whether USDA had to provide Argus Leader with the redemption data for the five years requested. Docket 31. The court approved the stipulation. Docket 32. On May 23, 2012, Argus Leader filed its opposition to the motion for summary judgment and claimed that the redemption data was not the type of information that was intended to be withheld under exemption 3. Docket 33.


" One of the principal purposes of the summary judgment rule is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses[.]" Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Summary judgment is proper " if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (" [A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of ... demonstrat[ing] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." (internal

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quotations omitted)). The moving party must inform the court of the basis for its motion and also identify the portion of the record that shows that there is no genuine issue in dispute. Hartnagel v. Norman, 953 F.2d 394, 395 (8th Cir.1992) (citation omitted).

Once the moving party has met its initial burden, the nonmoving party must establish " that a fact ... is genuinely disputed" either " by citing to particular parts of materials in the record," or by " showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence ... of a genuine dispute." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). " The nonmoving party may not ‘ rest on mere allegations or denials, but must demonstrate on the record the existence of specific facts which create a genuine issue for trial.’ " Mosley v. City of Northwoods, Mo., 415 F.3d 908, 910 (8th Cir.2005) (quoting Krenik v. Cnty. of Le Sueur, 47 F.3d 953, 957 (8th Cir.1995)). For purposes of summary judgment, the facts, and inferences drawn from those facts, are " viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." M ...

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