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Chesapeake Bay Found. v. Department of Agric.

ELR Citation: 27 ELR 20727
Nos. 96-5212, 108 F.3d 375/(D.C. Cir., 03/14/1997) rev'd

The court holds that an environmental group is not entitled to attorney fees and costs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in connection with the group's Freedom of Information Act request for data on Maryland state agencies' pesticide use. The court first holds that the district court abused its discretion in finding that the group was entitled to attorney fees and costs. When determining eligibility for fees and costs, the district court is directed to consider the public benefit of the release of the information, the commercial benefit to the plaintiff, the nature of the plaintiff's interest in the information, and the reasonableness of the agency's basis for withholding the information. Implicit in the district court's award was its view that the "public benefit" of the environmental group's request for the data lay in the use of the survey data to determine whether the use of pesticides in Maryland created a public safety hazard. However, the circuit court's recent decisions make clear that the public benefit derived from the litigation must be considered. The court finds that there was no public benefit from this litigation. The only difference between the USDA's pre-litigation offer and the district court's solution was that the group did not have to pay for postage under the latter, which is hardly a significant public benefit. Nor is the establishment of a legal right to information a public benefit for the purpose of awarding attorney fees.

[Prior decisions in this litigation are published at 24 ELR 20228 and 26 ELR 21072.]

Counsel for Appellee
Nancy Crisman
Crisman, Stohlman, Beuchert, Egan & Smith
1440 New York Ave. NW, Washington DC 20005
(202) 371-7330

Counsel for Appellant
Charles F. Flynn, Ass't U.S. Attorney
U.S. Attorney's Office
5806 Judiciary Ctr. Bldg.
555 4th St. NW, Washington DC 20001
(202) 514-7566