An advocacy group called the White Coat Waste Project has filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) has wrongfully withheld documents related to experiments conducted on cats at its Beltsville, Maryland Agricultural Research Center. White Coat Waste Project v. United States Department of Agriculture, No. 1:18-cv-02070 (D.D.C.). Using the federal Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), the White Coat Waste Project requested records related to the USDA’s “Toxoplasmosis in Cats” study, including veterinary records for all cats and kittens used in the experiment, as well as a complete project budget. Having received no response to its FOIA request within the statutory time limit, the White Coat Waste Project filed the lawsuit seeking a declaration that the USDA’s failure to respond to its FOIA request was unlawful, ordering USDA to produce the requested records, and for its attorneys’ fees.
FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 552, is a federal statute that allows members of the public to request and receive certain records controlled by agencies of the United States government (subject to certain exemptions, such as documents that are classified or contain trade secrets, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)). In the event the agency does not adequately comply in the proper time frame (generally 20 days), the statute gives individuals a right to sue the agency in federal court to obtain the records. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). The statute places the burden in such cases on the government agency and allows the court to assess attorneys’ fees against the United States in the event the plaintiff prevails. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B), (E)(i).
This lawsuit represents an interesting challenge to federal animal testing. The White Coat Waste Project describes itself as a “taxpayer watchdog organization,” Compl. ¶ 4, a mantle often taken up by those of a more conservative persuasion. However, its focus is on stopping animal experiments, a pet project of many more liberal animal rights activists. Indeed, the attorney who filed the complaint in this case was formerly employed by the PETA Foundation. Agencies involved in animal testing thus need to be prepared for bipartisan attacks from both sides who, through various methods — including by FOIA’ing and publicizing their documents, seek to end animal experimentation.