Court dismisses suit over missing animal welfare records

A federal district court judge in California tossed out a lawsuit this week that animal rights advocates filed to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to restore the animal welfare records it pulled from its website in February.

Judge William Orrick on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted the agency’s motion to dismiss the case on Tuesday, citing the same reason he refused to grant the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s request for a preliminary injunction in May.

He said courts can order production of documents to specific plaintiffs under the Freedom of Information Act but can’t mandate publication to the public as a whole.

The USDA said it decided to remove the compliance and enforcement records from its website in February following litigation that accused the agency off falsely identifying people as having violated federal laws that prohibit the soring of horses for show.

While USDA has reposted thousands of documents, the Animal Legal Defense Fund claims many are still missing and without them, animal rights groups can’t effectively fight animal abuse and monitor the agency’s regulatory efficacy.

The group sued along with the groups Stop Animal Exploitation Now, the Companion Animal Protection Society and Animal Folks to force USDA to restore the records.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) denounced the ruling in a statement Wednesday and urged USDA to end the blackout of what it called “critical animal welfare enforcements information.”

“Obstructing access to this vital data continues to endanger the lives and safety of animals the USDA should be committed to protecting, and the ASPCA is deeply disappointed to know that puppy mill dogs will continue to suffer while their abusers hide in the shadows,” Deborah Dubow Press, ASPCA’s director of regulatory affairs, said in the statement.

“Public access to these records is especially important given the USDA’s shamefully weak enforcement of the federal Animal Welfare Act.”

The Animal Legal Defense Fund has 21 days to file an amended complaint.

In a statement, the Animal Legal Defense Fund said it was disappointed with the court’s decision to dismiss its case, but plans to appeal the decision along with its coalition of animal rights groups.

“We remain committed to restoring public access to all of the animal welfare records,” Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells said in a statement.

“The information blackout continues to undermine the advocates who work tirelessly to protect hundreds of thousands of animals across the country.”

The groups are being represented pro bono by Margaret Kwoka, an associate professor at University of Denver Sturm College of Law.


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