Lawsuit Addresses Disappearance of Critical Animal Welfare Reports from USDA Website


On Monday, December 17, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, California will hear oral arguments from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the nation’s preeminent legal advocacy organization for animals, in the lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for removing tens of thousands of animal welfare records from the agency’s website.

When: Monday, December 17, 9 a.m.
Where: Courtroom 2, 3rd Floor Room 330, James R. Browning United States Court of Appeals Building, 95 Seventh Street San Francisco, CA 94103
Online: Check the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals website for live streaming of the argument.

These dogs were rescued from a puppy mill. Rescues like this are made possible, in part, by records of animal welfare violations. Image credit John Sibley, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund leads a coalition that includes Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, Companion Animal Protection Society, and Animal Folks, which filed the lawsuit in February 2017.

The lawsuit argues that the USDA’s decision to remove the records previously posted in the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) database violates both the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

The removed documents include records relating to violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) at thousands of research laboratories, roadside zoos and puppy mills across the country.

The coalition used these records to advocate for stronger animal protection policies, confront the USDA over inadequate regulation of substandard facilities, supply evidence for law enforcement action and build legal cases against egregious violators.

A coyote at a roadside zoo. One of the important reasons the USDA must keep its records public is to hold places like this accountable. Image credit Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.

FOIA requires that agencies make available important types of documents, including final opinions, orders, and frequently requested records in a public reading room.

Reading rooms — formerly actual rooms with reading material filed for review — have been replaced by “electronic” reading rooms, in the form of website and document databases, like the APHIS database. The coalition’s appeal argues that FOIA authorizes courts to order agencies to comply with the reading room requirement.

“The public must have access to the USDA’s animal welfare records. This transparency is not only critically important for protecting animals, but is required by the law and necessary to hold government agencies accountable,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “We look forward to our upcoming hearing and to these records being restored.”

The organizations are represented pro bono by Margaret Kwoka, Associate Professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Featured image: two tigers who were seized from inhumane conditions in New York state, thanks to a collaboration between the USDA and International Fund for Animal Welfare. Without cooperation from the USDA and access to their records, rescues like this would be much more difficult. Image credit International Fund for Animal Welfare, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s mission is to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. The Animal Legal Defense Fund accomplishes this mission by filing high-impact lawsuits to protect animals from harm, providing free legal assistance and training to prosecutors to assure that animal abusers are punished for their crimes, supporting tough animal protection legislation and fighting legislation harmful to animals, and providing resources and opportunities to law students and professionals to advance the emerging field of animal law. Click to see author's profile.

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