SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - A South Dakota newspaper's lawsuit against the USDA for alleged Freedom of Information Act violations will proceed, federal judge Karen Schreier ruled on Wednesday.
The lawsuit stems from a request that plaintiff The Argus Leader, a Sioux-Falls based newspaper, made to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011 asking for information relating to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - known now as SNAP but formerly known as food stamps.
Although the newspaper's February 2011 request letter initially asked for the store identifiers, names, and addresses of retailers participating in the program and SNAP yearly redemption amounts at each location over the past five years, the newspaper has since narrowed its focus to just the redemption data.
The case has already made its way through the appellate process and is now back in Federal Court on remand. In 2012, South Dakota's federal court ruled in favor of the USDA, finding that it could withhold the requested information under Exemption 3 of FOIA which excludes the disclosure of confidential data.
In 2014, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling.
Following the reversal, the USDA subsection Food and Nutrition Service contacted over 300,000 stores participating in SNAP to collect redemption of benefits information.
Only 323 stores responded, with 73 percent objecting to the disclosure of the information, according to Schreier's 12-page opinion.
Fifteen stores filed affidavits claiming that "the disclosure of individual store data could cause predatory competition, put a stigma on SNAP retailers, and cause other commercial harms," Schreier added.
She denied the USDA's motion for judgment in its favor based on the stores' objections. "Because USDA received a small percentage of responses from SNAP retailers, there is evidence that supports the inference that the majority of SNAP retailers are not concerned about any competitive harm that might stem from the disclosure of individual store data," she wrote.
Schreier also shot down the USDA's argument that disclosing SNAP redemption data violated the stores' privacy. Disclosure of individual store redemption data would not indicate what percentage of a store's revenue came from the SNAP program or how much the store profits after expenses, Schreier said.
"There is a great public interest in full disclosure of the parameters of the SNAP program. When weighing the interests of retailers against the public's interest in a transparent government, the latter prevails," she wrote.
Jon Ellis, the Argus Leader reporter who made the initial FOIA request, told Courthouse News the newspaper planned to keep fighting the department's excuses.
"The USDA has used these excuses over the years to deny record requests. So by litigating this all the way, they would no longer have those excuses to keep the records hidden," Ellis said. "The data [at issue in the lawsuit] is old, but presumably if we win, it will apply to all data, including the most recent. As a data analyst, I would love to see as many years as possible."
He added, ""Frankly, I think that the USDA has shown that it's a regulatory agency that's perhaps treated the industries that it regulates more favorably than the public's right to know what's going on."
The Argus Leader is South Dakota's largest newspaper, and 75 percent of adults in Sioux Falls read it at least once a week, according to a 2012 study . It is represented in the proceedings by attorney Jon Arneson.
Stephanie Bengford, the USDA attorney on the case, did not respond to a request for comment.
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