Animal Rights Groups Lose a Round Against Federal Government

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge dealt another setback Monday to animal-rights groups fighting to make the U.S. Department of Agriculture restore online public access to animal-welfare-compliance data.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick III dismissed with leave to amend the lawsuit from the Animal Legal Defense Fund et al., reiterating his reasoning from when he denied an injunction in June.

“As I concluded in the [preliminary injunction] order, courts cannot compel agencies to make documents available to the public at large under FOIA’s reading room provision,” Orrick wrote in his 6-page ruling.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund and three other groups sued the Department of Agriculture in February, claiming its Feb. 3 decision to abruptly pull data offline obstructed their missions to fight animal cruelty and monitor government enforcement.

The groups say they’ve had to divert scare resources to file Freedom of Information Act requests and wait months or years to see inspection reports and enforcement actions that once were available instantaneously.

They say access to that information is crucial to monitor abuses at roadside zoos, puppy mills and research facilities, and ensure that USDA inspectors enforce animal abuse laws.

Orrick ruled in June that the public interest in instantly accessing Animal Welfare Act compliance data did not outweigh the USDA’s duty to ensure that the records do not disclose private information.

In his Monday ruling, Orrick said the plaintiffs gave him no reason to reconsider his previous analysis, that they “simply rehash the arguments” that he rejected.

“Plaintiffs do not present new evidence, contend that I committed clear error in my prior ruling, nor assert that there has been a change in controlling law,” Orrick wrote. “Absent such circumstances, reconsideration is not appropriate.”

He gave them 21 days to file an amended complaint.

“We are grateful for the court’s ruling, which reaffirms its prior decision that USDA acted properly under the law,” USDA spokesman Brian Mabry said in an email.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys John Rossiter Jr. and Margaret Kwoka did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Monday afternoon.

Rossiter is with Perkins Coie in San Francisco, Kwoka with the University of Denver Sturm College of Law in Colorado.

The other plaintiffs are Stop Animal Exploitation Now, the Companion Animal Protection Society, and Animal Folks.

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