Monday, June 24, 2019
The Supreme Court ruled today in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media that an industry group had standing to appeal a lower court's FOIA ruling that would have required government disclosure of information that would have harmed the group's members.
The case arose when Argus Leader Media filed a FOIA request with the USDA for the names and addresses of all retail grocery stores that participate in the national food-stamp program, SNAP, along with each store's annual SNAP redemption data from 2005 to 2010. USDA declined to provide the redemption data, citing FOIA's Exemption 4, which protects "confidential" commercial information. The district court ruled against the agency under the circuit's "substantial harm" test to determine whether information is "confidential." (Under the test, information is protected if its disclosure would create a substantial harm to the competitive position of the person or firm from whom the information was obtained (the participating grocery stores).) USDA declined to appeal, so the Food Marketing Institute stepped in to challenge the ruling.
The Court today ruled that the Institute had standing to appeal. The Court held that disclosure of the requested information would "likely cause some financial injury" to its members, and that a favorable Court ruling would redress that injury. As to Argus's claim that a judicial ruling would simply restore the government's discretion to withhold the data (and thus that redressability was speculative, not a sure thing), the Court said that "the government has represented unequivocally that, consistent with its longstanding policy and past assurances of confidentiality to retailers, it 'will not disclosure' the contested data unless to do so by the district court's order."
The Court went on to abandon the "substantial harm" test (thus lowering the bar on Exemption 4 and making it easier for an agency to withhold information under that Exemption) and to rule in favor of the Institute:
At least where commercial or financial information is both customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy, the information is "confidential" within the meaning of Exemption 4. Because the store-level SNAP data at issue here is confidential under that construction, the judgment of the court of appeals is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.