Telematch, Inc. v. AGRI

United States Court of Appeals FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT Argued October 21, 2021 Decided August 12, 2022 No. 20-5378 TELEMATCH, INC., APPELLANT v. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, APPELLEE Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:19-cv-02372) Anand V. Ramana argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant. Johnny H. Walker, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief were R. Craig Lawrence and Jane M. Lyons, Assistant U.S. Attorneys. Before: WILKINS, KATSAS, and JACKSON, * Circuit Judges. Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge KATSAS. * Circuit Judge, now Justice, Jackson was a member of the panel at the time the case was argued but did not participate in the opinion. 2 KATSAS, Circuit Judge: To administer its farm subsidy programs, the United States Department of Agriculture assigns numbers to plots of enrolled farmland and to their owners. The question presented is whether the Freedom of Information Act requires USDA to disclose these numbers. I A FOIA requires federal agencies to disclose requested records unless one of nine exemptions applies. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3), (b). Exemption 3 allows an agency to withhold records “specifically exempted from disclosure” by a statute that either “requires that the matters be withheld from the public” or “refers to particular types of matters to be withheld.” Id. § 552(b)(3)(A)(i). Exemption 6 allows an agency to withhold “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Id. § 552(b)(6). B USDA administers various programs offering financial assistance for farming. When a farm enrolls in such a program, USDA digitally draws its boundaries on a map or aerial photo. USDA then assigns either a farm number or tract number to the figure so drawn. Farm numbers refer to an entire farm, and tract numbers refer to a contiguous plot within a farm. USDA also assigns a customer number to each farm owner participating in one of its programs. In its records, USDA uses these numbers to track various information associated with the tracts and owners, such as the kind of crops planted or the land transactions of the owner. 3 C In 2005, Multi Ag Media LLC, a commercial vendor of agricultural data, submitted a FOIA request for USDA records containing farm and tract numbers. We held that Exemption 6 did not cover those records. Multi Ag Media LLC v. USDA, 515 F.3d 1224 (D.C. Cir. 2008). We acknowledged that the records were similar to personnel or medical files and that their release would impair a privacy interest by making it possible to learn of the financial condition of individual farmers. Id. at 1228–30. But we also found a significant public interest in disclosure, which would allow the public to “more easily determine whether USDA is catching cheaters and lawfully administering its subsidy and benefit programs.” Id. at 1232. We thus concluded that release of the farm and tract numbers …

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