Lawsuit argues removal of online animal welfare records violates the Freedom of Information Act and the Administrative Procedure Act
SAN FRANSICO – Today, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed suit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for removing tens of thousands of animal welfare records from the agency’s website. According to the lawsuit, the USDA’s decision to remove the records violates both the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The removed documents revealed inhumane treatment of animals at thousands of research laboratories, roadside zoos and puppy mills across the country.
The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California on behalf of a coalition of animal protection organizations, contends that the USDA violated FOIA, which requires federal agencies to affirmatively disclose final orders and frequently requested records. It also argues that the USDA violated the APA, which prohibits agencies from taking actions that are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law[.]” If the coalition is successful with its claim under the APA, the USDA would be required to resume posting the records online so they are available to the public.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund is joined in the lawsuit by Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, Companion Animal Protection Society and Animal Folks. The USDA’s decision to stop posting records significantly burdens the organizations because they must now manage voluminous FOIA requests to access the same records, potentially pay large fees, and wait for several months or even years to obtain records previously accessible immediately online at no cost.
Public access to these records is especially important in light of the USDA’s chronically lackadaisical enforcement of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The Office of Inspector General, an oversight division of the USDA, regularly finds that the USDA renders its enforcement of the AWA largely ineffective by not aggressively pursuing enforcement actions against substandard facilities and by significantly discounting penalties even when it does pursue enforcement action.
“The USDA itself needs oversight due to its continual failure to adequately enforce the federal Animal Welfare Act,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “The information blackout is a tremendous blow to transparency and undermines advocates who are working to protect hundreds of thousands of animals across the country.”
The plaintiffs filing today’s lawsuit regularly utilized the USDA database and enforcement actions page to obtain records about the conditions of animals at facilities regulated under the AWA, such as research laboratories, puppy mills and zoos around the country. In turn, these organizations use the records to advocate for stronger animal protection policies, confront the USDA over inadequate regulation of substandard facilities, supply evidence for law enforcement action and build legal cases against especially egregious violators. The Animal Legal Defense Fund relied on these records in its groundbreaking Endangered Species Act (ESA) victory against the Cricket Hollow Animal Park (previously Cricket Hollow Zoo), a roadside zoo that cruelly confined endangered animals in inhumane conditions. It was the first victory applying the ESA to protect animals in captivity.
The organizations are represented pro bono by Margaret Kwoka, Associate Professor at University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and Perkins Coie LLP.
For more information visit, aldf.org.
About the Animal Legal Defense Fund
The Animal Legal Defense Fund was founded in 1979 to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. To accomplish this mission, the Animal Legal Defense Fund files high-impact lawsuits to protect animals from harm; provides free legal assistance and training to prosecutors to assure that animal abusers are punished for their crimes; supports tough animal protection legislation and fights harmful legislation; and provides resources and opportunities to law students and professionals to advance the emerging field of animal law. For more information, please visit aldf.org.
About the Companion Animal Protection Society
Founded in 1992, the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS) is the only national nonprofit dedicated exclusively to protecting companion animals from cruelty in pet shops and puppy/kitten mills. CAPS addresses animal suffering through investigations, legislation, education, media relations, consumer assistance, and rescue.
About Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!
SAEN (Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!) is a national non-profit animal advocacy organization dedicated to the rights of all animals. Our mission is to end the exploitation of animals imprisoned in laboratories by educating the public with the reality of what is happening inside the vivisection industry and engaging government agencies to enforce laws, issue citations, and levy fines against criminal labs. Through in-depth investigations of laboratories and national media campaigns, SAEN exposes and ends the misery of animals.
About Animal Folks
Animal Folks is a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting the lives of animals by modernizing the animal law enforcement system in Minnesota. Animal Folks is focused on systemic change — finding new, innovative ways to prevent animal cruelty and improve how animal law is enforced throughout Minnesota. To achieve this mission, Animal Folks conducts research on animal cruelty issues and cases, creates training materials and resources, files criminal and civil complaints against abusers, and collaborates with state, local and national authorities and organizations for sustainable reforms. www.animalfolks.org.