United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Southern Division
ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR ATTORNEY FEES AND
E. SCHREIER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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
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).
Eligibility for Attorney Fees
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.
Entitlement to Attorney Fees
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.
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.
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 ...