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Animal Legal Defense Fund v. United States Department of Agriculture "USDA"

United States District Court, N.D. California

May 25, 2018



          PHYLLIS J. HAMILTON United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Animal Legal Defense Fund's (“ALDF”) motion for summary judgment, and defendants United States Department of Agriculture's (“USDA”) and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (“APHIS” and together, “defendants”) cross-motion for summary judgment, came on for hearing before this court on March 28, 2018. Plaintiff appeared through its counsel, Justin Okun and Sarah Hanneken. Defendants appeared through their counsel, Daniel Halainen. Having read the papers filed by the parties and carefully considered their arguments and the relevant legal authority, and good cause appearing, the court hereby GRANTS defendants' motion and DENIES plaintiff's motion as follows.


         This matter arises out of a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request submitted by ALDF to APHIS, a component of the USDA, for records related to a medical inspection of a tiger named Tony. Plaintiff alleges defendants violated the FOIA by failing to expedite plaintiff's FOIA application for information related to Tony. The parties do not dispute the material facts. Dkt. 29 at 1 (claims “rest on the same purely legal dispute”); Dkt. 30 at 5 (“Like the vast majority of FOIA cases, no discovery was conducted and the Court is simply asked to make a legal ruling based on undisputed facts.”).

         Tony was a Siberian-Bengal Tiger kept in captivity at a gas station in Iberville Parish, Louisiana, known as the “Tiger Truck Stop.” Compl. ¶¶ 1-2; Dkt. 26 at 2. The Animal Legal Defense Fund has been involved in litigation attempting to relocate Tony for some time. Compl. ¶ 18; Dkt. 26 at 3-4. During plaintiff's work on the case, veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Conrad, DVM, reviewed videos and photographs of Tony. Compl. ¶ 19; Dkt. 26 at 4. She expressed concerns regarding his health, and on April 7, 2017, ALDF requested that APHIS inspect the Tiger Truck Stop to determine if it was in violation of the Animal Welfare Act for failure to provide adequate veterinary care for Tony. Compl. ¶¶ 19-20; Dkt. 26 at 4. APHIS responded that it had received ALDF's request for an inspection and that ALDF needed to file a FOIA request to learn the results. Dkt. 26 at 5.

         On May 4, 2017, ALDF submitted a FOIA request to APHIS for records regarding its request for inspection. Compl. ¶¶ 4, 21. Due to ALDF's belief that Tony's condition could be life-threatening, ALDF requested expedited processing of the FOIA request. ALDF stated that it believed expedited processing was warranted under Section 552(a)(6)(E)(v)(I) of the FOIA, which provides for expedited processing when “a failure to obtain requested records on an expedited basis . . . could reasonably be expected to pose an imminent threat to the life or physical safety of an individual.” Compl. ¶¶ 4, 21- 24.

         On May 11, 2017, defendants denied the request for expedited processing, stating that “Tony the Tiger is not considered an ‘individual'” under the FOIA because “the term ‘individual' in this matter only encompasses human beings.” Compl. ¶ 25 & Ex. B. On May 22, 2017, ALDF appealed the denial of expedited processing and requested expedited processing of the appeal. Compl. ¶ 28 & Ex. C; Dkt. 26 at 5. On May 30, 2017, defendants acknowledged receipt of the appeal and stated that the target response date for the appeal would be June 26, 2017. Compl. ¶ 31 & Ex. D; Dkt. 26 at 5. However, defendants never responded to the appeal of the denial of expedited processing. Compl. ¶ 32; Dkt. 26 at 5.

         On July 11, 2017, plaintiff had not yet received records or a response regarding its appeal, and it filed this action seeking the records and challenging the denial of expedited processing. See Compl.; Dkt. 26 at 5-6. In addition, plaintiff sought prospective declaratory relief that the term “individual” encompasses nonhuman animals under Section 552(a)(6)(E)(v)(I) of the FOIA, as well as prospective injunctive relief generally requiring that defendants treat nonhuman animals as “individuals” for purposes of expedited processing under the FOIA. Compl. at 13.

         On August 14, 2017, defendants substantively responded to the FOIA request. Dkt. 25 at 4; Dkt 25-1 (“Coleman Decl.”) ¶ 9; Dkt. 26 at 6; Dkt. 27 (“Hanneken Decl.”) ¶ 6 & Exs. C-D. On October 3, 2017, defendants informed plaintiff that they had “located, but have not released, additional potentially responsive records, which it currently estimates to total less than 100 pages” and stated that they would release the additional responsive records by October 20, 2017. Dkt. 26 at 6; Dkt. 21 (Joint CMC Statement) ¶¶ 2, 17.

         On October 16, 2017, Tony was reportedly killed by his owner after suffering from health issues. Dkt. 26 at 2. On October 20, 2017, as planned, defendants provided forty-three additional pages of responsive, partially-redacted documents. Coleman Decl. ¶ 10; Dkt. 25 at 4; Dkt. 26 at 8.

         Defendants have released the records plaintiff requested. Coleman Decl. ¶ 12. All work on plaintiff's request for records is complete, and plaintiff is not challenging the adequacy of defendants' production of records related to Tony. Dkt. 26 at 9 (“Defendants provided a complete record to Plaintiff”).

         On July 20, 2017 and August 18, 2017, ALDF submitted three unrelated FOIA requests for expedited processing to APHIS. Dkt. 26 at 6; Hanneken Decl. ¶ 7 & Exs. E- G. Two of those requests for expedited processing were denied, with APHIS contending that “individual” refers only to human beings. Dkt. 26 at 6-7; Hanneken Decl. ¶ 8 & Exs. H-I.

         Plaintiff now requests three forms of relief: (1) a declaration that defendants unlawfully failed to comply with the expedited processing requirements of the Freedom of Information Act by asserting that the term “individual” under Section 552(a)(6)(E)(v)(I) of the FOIA encompasses human beings only; (2) a declaration that nonhuman animals are “individuals” within the meaning of Section 552(a)(6)(E)(v)(I) of the FOIA; and (3) a permanent injunction requiring defendants treat nonhuman animals as “individuals” for purposes of expedited processing under the FOIA.


         A. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper where the pleadings, discovery, and affidavits show 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). Material facts are those which may affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id.

         The moving party for summary judgment bears the initial burden of identifying those portions of the pleadings, discovery, and affidavits which demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Nissan Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Fritz Cos., 210 F.3d 1099, 1102 (9th Cir. 2000). When the moving party has met this burden of production, the nonmoving party must go beyond the pleadings and, by its own affidavits or discovery, set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. If the nonmoving party fails to produce enough evidence to show a genuine issue of material fact, the moving party wins. Id.

         At summary judgment, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party: if evidence produced by the moving party conflicts with evidence produced by the nonmoving party, the judge must assume the truth of the evidence set forth by the nonmoving party with respect to that fact. See Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1865 (2014); Leslie v. Grupo ICA, 198 F.3d 1152, 1158 (9th Cir. 1999). “Most FOIA cases are resolved by the district court on summary judgment[.]” Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. Food & Drug Admin., 836 F.3d 987, 989 (9th Cir. 2016) (per curiam).

         B. Analysis

         The parties raise two issues: (1) whether the court has jurisdiction over plaintiff's cause of action; and (2) whether the term “individual” encompasses nonhuman animals under Section 552(a)(6)(E)(v)(I) of the FOIA.

         1. Whether the Court Has Jurisdiction to ...

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