9th Circuit Rejects Animal Rights Organization’s Claim That a Bengal Tiger is an “Individual” Under FOIA

by John M. Simpson.

Yesterday, in Animal Legal Defense Fund v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, et al., ___ F.3d ___, No. 18-16327 (9th Cir. Aug. 12, 2019), the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a summary judgment of the Northern District Court of California holding that a Bengal tiger is not an “individual” within the meaning of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).   The case had been brought by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) denied ALDF’s request for expedited treatment of its FOIA request for records concerning an inspection request regarding a tiger named “Tony.”    

Under FOIA, a requester can seek expedited treatment of its request where there is a “compelling need” which, in turn, means that “a failure to obtain the requested records on an expedited basis … 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).  ALDF argued that the “individual” whose life or physical safety was threatened was Tony, who at the time of the request, was being maintained at a truck stop in Louisiana.  The district court ruled that “individual” could only mean a human being, and the Ninth Circuit agreed.

The court of appeals first determined that it had jurisdiction notwithstanding the government’s argument (made below but abandoned on appeal) that the case was moot due to the fact that the requested records had been produced (although not on an expedited basis) and Tony had been euthanized.  Despite these facts, the matter was not moot because ALDF was not simply challenging the denial of an individual FOIA request but a policy of the USDA to exclude animals from the meaning of “individual.”

On the merits, the court of appeals ruled that, in the absence of a statutory definition (and there was none), the term “individual” had to be given its ordinary meaning, which, in this case, was “single human being.”  The court found the Supreme Court’s decision in Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, 566 U.S. 449 (2012), instructive.  That case involved the meaning of “individual” under the Torture Victims Protection Act.  As the Ninth Circuit observed:

The Court  defined  “individual”  to mean “natural  person”  as  opposed  to  an  organization.  Id. at 451–52.  Although Mohamad addressed a different statutory context, we find much of its reasoning applicable here.  Surveying dictionaries, the Court wrote, “As a noun, ‘individual’ ordinarily means ‘[a] human being, a person.’” Id. at 454 (quoting 7 OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY 880 (2d ed. 1989)); see also, e.g., RANDOM HOUSE DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE 974 (2d ed. 1987) (“a person”); WEBSTER’S THIRD NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY 1152(1986) (“a particular person”). The Court continued, “After all, that is how we use the word in everyday parlance.” Mohamad, 566 U.S. at 454.  We agree that, as a noun standing alone, “individual” ordinarily refers to a single human being.

Slip op. at 10.  The Ninth Circuit also rejected all of ALDF’s statutory construction arguments:  (i) FOIA’s goal of “broad disclosure” was no warrant for concluding that “individual” in the statute meant anything other than a human being.  (ii) The animal-protection policies underlying the Animal Welfare Act have nothing to do with whether Congress intended that animals be covered by the expedited processing provision of FOIA.  (iii)  The reference, under FOIA Exemption (b)(7), to withholding law enforcement records to avoid endangering the life or physical safety of “any individual” did not signify that “individual” means animals:

[W]e agree with ALDF that these two provisions of FOIA should be read consistently.  But we disagree with ALDF as to their meaning.  In our view, both provisions use the term “individual” to mean “human being.”

Slip op. at 14.

The outcome of this case marks another set-back for “non-human rights.”  This case is one of several recently unsuccessful attempts to have various animals declared eligible for the rights or legal protections available to human beings.  See our prior blog posts here and here.