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Argus Leader Media v. United States Department of Agriculture

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

August 3, 2017

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

          ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR ATTORNEY FEES AND COSTS

          KAREN E. SCHREIER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Argus Leader Media, moves for attorney fees and costs after prevailing on its claim under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Defendant, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), opposes the motion. For the reasons stated below, the court grants Argus's motion.

         BACKGROUND

         On August 26, 2011, Argus filed a complaint seeking information from the United States Department of Agriculture about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. Docket 1. Argus sought information under the Freedom of Information Act about SNAP redemptions at the individual store level. Id. The USDA opposed the request and filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the requested information fell within FOIA Exemption 3. Docket 18; Docket 23. The court granted USDA's motion, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed and remanded the case. Docket 38; Docket 45. USDA then filed a second motion for summary judgment, arguing FOIA Exemptions 4 and 6 applied. Docket 58; Docket 61. The court denied the motion and held a bench trial on May 24, 2016. Docket 80; Docket 111. On November 30, 2016, the court entered its judgment in favor of Argus. Docket 128. Argus now seeks to recover reasonable attorney fees and costs. Docket 129.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         FOIA provides that “[t]he court may assess against the United States reasonable attorney fees and other litigation costs reasonably incurred in any case . . . in which the complainant has substantially prevailed.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(i). One way a complainant may substantially prevail is by obtaining relief through a judicial order. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(ii). Because an award of attorney fees is not mandatory under FOIA, the court engages in a two part inquiry: (1) whether the complainant is eligible for fees under the statute and (2) whether the complainant is entitled to fees under the statute. Miller v. U.S. Dep't of State, 779 F.2d 1378, 1389 (8th Cir. 1985); Brayton v. Office of U.S. Trade Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 524 (D.C. Cir. 2011).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Eligibility for Attorney Fees

         To be eligible for attorney fees, Argus must have substantially prevailed before this court. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(i). This includes obtaining relief through a judicial order. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(ii). Here, when Argus filed its complaint with the court, Argus sought SNAP redemption data from individual stores for the years 2005 to 2010. Docket 1 at 2. On November 30, 2016, the court entered judgment in Argus's favor and ruled that Argus was entitled to the requested information. Docket 127; Docket 128. Although Argus may have initially requested additional information, such as store identifier numbers, both parties later agreed that information had marginal relevance. The heart of Argus's request was the individual store redemption data, and this court has ruled that Argus is entitled to receive that data. Thus, Argus has substantially prevailed.

         II. Entitlement to Attorney Fees

         When determining whether a party is entitled to attorney fees, courts consider a number of factors including: “(1) the benefit to the public to be derived from the case; (2) commercial benefit to the complainant; (3) the nature of the complainant's interest in the records which he seeks; and (4) whether the government's withholding of the records had a reasonable basis in law.” Miller v. U.S. Dep't of State, 779 F.2d 1378, 1389 (8th Cir. 1985) (citing LaSalle Extension Univ. v. FTC, 627 F.2d 481, 483 (D.C. Cir. 1980)). Each factor is addressed below.

         A. Public Benefit

         The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has stated, “Probably the most important consideration in determining entitlement to fees in a FOIA case is the benefit to the public which is to be derived from release of the information sought.” Miller, 779 F.2d at 1389. The Eighth Circuit has noted that “[m]edia requesters have an obvious claim to acting in the public interest . . . .” Id. In Miller, the Eighth Circuit explained that disclosure of information related to the attack on the U.S.S. Liberty provided “considerable public value” even though the incident happened eighteen years earlier. Id. at 1389-90. The information was important because there was “considerable public value in any disclosure which adds significantly to the fund of information which citizens may use in making political choices . . . .” Id. at 1390.

         Here, USDA argues there is limited public benefit in publishing additional SNAP data because the government already publishes SNAP data on the national, regional, state, and community level. Docket 169 at 6-7. This argument, however, overlooks the public benefit the sales data could provide in improving public policy regarding city planning, distribution of government resources, and government transparency. Docket 73-6 at 5-10, ¶¶ 29-42. Because the disclosure of the requested SNAP data could add ...


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