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Argus Leader Media v. United States Department of Agriculture

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

September 30, 2015

ARGUS LEADER MEDIA, d/b/a Argus Leader Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, Defendant.

ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

KAREN E. SCHREIER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiff, Argus Leader Media, d/b/a Argus Leader, brought this action under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) against defendant, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), seeking disclosure of information related to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program. Docket 1. USDA moves for summary judgment and argues that its decision to withhold information is supported by exemptions 4 and 6 to the FOIA. Docket 61. Argus Leader resists USDA’s motion and argues neither exemption applies. Docket 73. For the following reasons, USDA’s motion for summary judgment is denied.

BACKGROUND

The facts viewed in the light most favorable to Argus Leader are as follows:

On February 1, 2011, Argus Leader made a FOIA request for documents from the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which is an agency of the USDA. FNS administers the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 and other federal statutes designed to facilitate the operation of SNAP. Argus Leader’s request for information 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 60 at 3. At this point in the litigation, Argus Leader only seeks information about the yearly redemption amounts paid to each participating store. All other data was either provided to Argus Leader or deemed nonessential by Argus Leader.

The Benefit Redemption Division (BRD), a component within FNS, oversees an EBT system which allows SNAP beneficiaries to use their SNAP benefits at participating retailers. Through the EBT system, BRD is able to track each SNAP beneficiary’s account and ensure that each retailer is paid for SNAP purchases. The EBT system functions like other debit cards. A SNAP beneficiary is given an EBT card. At checkout, the SNAP beneficiary swipes his or her EBT card on the store’s point-of-sale device. The device then communicates with a processor and electronically verifies that the retailer is a SNAP participant and that the SNAP beneficiary has a sufficient balance in his or her account to cover the purchase. If the retailer is not a SNAP participant or there are insufficient funds in the beneficiary’s account, the transaction is denied at the point-of-sale.

All of the SNAP payment information that is generated is stored in a technology system overseen by BRD called the Store Tracking and Redemption System (STARS). Redemption data is obtained only when a retailer is authorized to accept SNAP cards and processes a SNAP transaction. Redemption data is generated for each retailer only during the time frame that the retailer would be authorized to participate in SNAP. The STARS system keeps track of the total amount of EBT dollars spent at a participating SNAP retailer in a given year. For instance, if a SNAP retailer is authorized to participate in the program but makes no EBT sales, then the redemption data amount is $0. Argus Leader seeks to recover this store specific data.

On February 1, 2011, Argus Leader made its request for documents from FNS. 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 FOIA exemptions 3 and 4, codified at 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 appealed FNS’s decision to withhold the redemption data to 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 prepared for final signatures from those who could officially deny the appeal.

Argus Leader filed its complaint in this court on August 26, 2011, and the denial of Argus Leader’s administrative appeal was never sent. Docket 1. USDA 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 stipulated that the issue of FNS numbers was no longer relevant and the only issue remaining 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 with regard to the remaining issue and claimed that the redemption data was not the type of information that was intended to be withheld under exemption 3 to the FOIA. Docket 33. The court ruled in favor of USDA and found that exemption 3 applied to the requested data. On March 25, 2014, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and held that exemption 3 did not apply. Docket 44.

After the Court of Appeals’ ruling, the USDA published a request for information in the Federal Register on August 4, 2014. FNS contacted SNAP retailers to determine whether SNAP retailers thought disclosure of aggregated SNAP redemption data for individual stores should be disclosed. Of the 321, 988 potential SNAP retailers contacted, only 323 responded, and 73 percent of respondents were opposed to disclosing individual store redemption data.

USDA followed up with fifteen SNAP retailers that filed affidavits stating why individual store redemption amounts should not be disclosed. Affiants stated the disclosure of individual store data could cause predatory competition, put a stigma on SNAP retailers, and cause other commercial harms. After receiving this data, USDA filed its second motion for summary judgment arguing that exemptions 4 and 6 to the FOIA applied to the requested information. Docket 58; Docket 61.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

“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 (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 (“[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of . . . demonstrat[ing] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” (internal quotations omitted)). The moving party must inform the court of the basis for its ...


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