FOIA Advisor

FOIA News: Court rules that "Tony the Tiger" does not qualify as "individual" for expedited processing purposes

FOIA News (2018)Ryan MulveyComment

Court Rules Bengal Tiger Is Not An "Individual" Under FOIA

John M. Simpson (Duane Morris LLP), Lexology, Aug. 3, 2018

In Animal Legal Defense Fund v. U.S. Dep’t of Agriculture, 2018 WL 23987812 (N.D. Cal. May 25, 2018), the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recently granted summary judgment to the government in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit in which the plaintiff challenged the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “policy and practice of interpreting the statute to exclude nonhuman animals.” The case arose out of a FOIA request by an animal rights organization for inspection records of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concerning Tony the Tiger — a Bengal tiger maintained at a truck stop in Louisiana.

The plaintiff had sought expedited processing of the request under a provision of the FOIA that provides for expedited processing when the requestor demonstrates a “compelling need,” which the statute defines as a situation where failure to produce the records “could reasonably be expected to pose an imminent threat to the life or physical safety of an individual ….” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(E)(v)(I) (emphasis added). Plaintiff contended that the request was entitled to expedited treatment because the “individual” at issue here — Tony — had a health condition that could be life-threatening. Tony apparently expired before the request was processed, but plaintiff had also submitted other requests for expedited processing, so the court found that the challenge to USDA’s policy and practice was not moot.

On the merits, the court rejected the argument that “individual” within the meaning of this FOIA provision included anything other than human beings. The court noted that “every dictionary consulted by this court includes a definition of ‘individual’ as a person or human being.” 2018 WL 23987812 at *7. The other most consistently appearing definition defined individual as an individual thing as opposed to a group. This definition was not helpful because it could include plants, and suggesting that plants were “individuals” under the FOIA “would lead to an absurd result.” Id. & n.2.

[. . .]

The plaintiff has noticed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

Read more here.

(NB: FOIA Advisor reported on the filing of this lawsuit last summer.  Read more here.  It also posted the decision in May 2018 here)