Court Rules Bengal Tiger Is Not An “Individual” Under FOIA

by John M. Simpson

In Animal Legal Defense Fund v. U.S. Dep’t of Agriculture, 2018 WL 23987812 (N.D. Cal. May 25, 2018), the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recently granted summary judgment to the government in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit in which the plaintiff challenged the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “policy and practice of interpreting the statute to exclude nonhuman animals.”  The case arose out of a FOIA request by an animal rights organization for inspection records of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concerning Tony the Tiger — a Bengal tiger maintained at a truck stop in Louisiana.

The plaintiff had sought expedited processing of the request under a provision of the FOIA that provides for expedited processing when the requestor demonstrates a “compelling need,” which the statute defines as a situation where failure to produce the records “could reasonably be expected to pose an imminent threat to the life or physical safety of an individual ….”  5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(E)(v)(I) (emphasis added).  Plaintiff contended that the request was entitled to expedited treatment because the “individual” at issue here — Tony — had a health condition that could be life-threatening.  Tony apparently expired before the request was processed, but plaintiff had also submitted other requests for expedited processing, so the court found that the challenge to USDA’s policy and practice was not moot.

On the merits, the court rejected the argument that “individual” within the meaning of this FOIA provision included anything other than human beings.  The court noted that “every dictionary consulted by this court includes a definition of ‘individual’ as a person or human being.”  2018 WL 23987812 at *7.  The other most consistently appearing definition defined individual as an individual thing as opposed to a group.  This definition was not helpful because it could include plants, and suggesting that plants were “individuals” under the FOIA “would lead to an absurd result.”  Id. & n.2.

The court also found its conclusion reinforced by the Supreme Court decision in Mohamad v. Palestinian Auth., 566 U.S. 449 (2012), ruling that “individual” within the meaning of the Torture Victim Protection Act encompassed only natural persons, and rejecting the argument that it included “nonsovereign organizations:”

“‘This is not to say that the word “individual” invariably means “natural person” when used in a statute.  Congress remains free, as always, to give the word a broader or different meaning. But before we will assume it has done so, there must be some indication Congress intended such a result.'”

Id. at *8 (quoting 566 U.S. at 454-55).   Similarly, the court found in the present case that “[t]he proper solution, if any, is for Congress to alter the statute’s text — not for this court to do so.”  Id. at *9.

The plaintiff has noticed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

This case is similar to other recent, but unsuccessful, efforts to have various animals declared eligible for the rights or legal protections available to human beings.  See our prior blog posts:

Ninth Circuit Recently Slams PETA Over Monkey Selfie Lawsuit

Court Denies Habeas Petition Filed on Behalf of Elephants