Dog Breeders Lose Bid to Block Data Disclosure

     (CN) – The U.S. Department of Agriculture can release the revenue and sales data of Missouri dog breeders and dealers to the Humane Society, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled.
     U.S. District Judge James Boasberg held that the agency’s decision to release the data was not arbitrary or capricious.
     A group of breeders and dealers had asked the judge to block the agency from releasing information that it claimed was exempt under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
     The Humane Society of the United States had filed multiple FOIA requests in 2009, seeking reports that breeders and dealers file annually with the USDA. Those reports list their gross revenue and/or commissions from the past year’s dog sales, the number of dogs bought and sold that year and, for dealers, the difference between the sale price and purchase price of those dogs.
     Missouri breeders and dealers claimed that the Humane Society sought the information “to destroy” their businesses.
     They argued that data about their annual sales revenue and volume were protected by two FOIA exemptions: one for privileged or confidential “trade secrets and commercial or financial information” and another for files for which disclosure would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
     The USDA initially redacted the revenue and sales data before releasing the reports, but later backtracked, concluding that the forms were not protected by either exemption. It explained that much of the information included in the annual reports is publicly available, and that disclosure was unlikely to cause “substantial competitive harm.”
     But breeders and dealers insisted that their rivals could use the numbers to calculate – and then undercut – a dealer’s price per dog. Competitors could also use the data to gauge the size and growth of a dealer’s operation, they claimed.
     The USDA countered that most of this information is already in the public domain, as the fees each dealer pays to renew its license reflects its revenue, allowing competitors to estimate the operation’s net income.
     And there are too many other variables affecting a dog’s price, including breed, dog quality, age and market demand, the agency said.
     Judge Boasberg agreed, saying competitors would need to “complete the ‘financial puzzle'” to determine how a dealer prices its dogs, but “there is no indication here that competitors have those other puzzle pieces.”
     Turning to the privacy exemption, Boasberg said the balance of privacy and public interests “ultimately favors disclosure.”
     Disclosure can help the public monitor the USDA’s inspections and assessment of licensing fees, Boasberg said.
     He also rejected the breeders’ and dealers’ claim that the government should have factored the Humane Society’s alleged vendetta against them in its assessment of private interests.
     “But plaintiffs omit the crucial link: they do not explain how the information sought here would further that crusade and cause additional harm to plaintiffs,” Boasberg wrote.
     He concluded that the agency’s decision to release the annual reports “was not arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”

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