|NMU||WASHINGTON, D.C.||Freedom of Information||Dec 5, 2002|
Ranchers can continue Privacy Act suit as class action
- Western ranchers can bring a class action suit under the Privacy Act to claim damages from the U.S. Forest Service’s release of information about their use of grazing permits as loan collateral, a federal judge ruled in late November.
A federal district judge in Washington, D.C., ruled Nov. 27 that a group of ranchers can bring a class action against the U.S. Forest Service under the federal Privacy Act for releasing information in escrow waivers in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by an environmental organization.
The ranchers claim that the government violated the federal Privacy Act when it divulged information banks provided the government concerning ranchers who claimed their federal grazing permits as collateral for loans to the Forest Guardians, a non-profit environmental group based in Santa Fe, N.M. The ranchers claim that the Guardians are using the information to try to put them out of business.
Grazing permits are issued to private ranchers who rent public land to pasture livestock. Environment groups have alleged that the process damages grasslands.
To recover, ranchers will have to prove that they suffered actual damages and that the Forest Service acted in an “intentional or willful” manner to violate the Privacy Act, the court said. But it said that the 3,500 ranchers comprising the class can seek damages and injunctive relief to keep the Forest Service from releasing that information in the future.
The Guardians reported in August that banks have made $450 million in loans using Forest Service grazing permits as collateral, a practice it says significantly “privatizes” the grazing permit system, ultimately limiting the Forest Service’s ability to protect lands from overgrazing. Their literature points out that banks could not “accept the Statue of Liberty” as collateral for a private loan.
Nine ranchers brought the suit in October. The parties will have a conference on how to proceed in mid-December.
One exemption to the Privacy Act allows information to be released if disclosure is required under the federal FOI Act. The government increasingly claims that the privacy exemptions to the FOI Act protect information about individuals. The privacy exemptions to the FOI Act do not apply, however, when the public’s interest in seeing what the government is up to outweighs any privacy interest.
The government permits a rancher to use his grazing permits as collateral for mortgages but, when he does, the lender must fill out an escrow waiver for the government naming the rancher, describing the property — including his grazing allotments — that he has used for collateral and providing the amount and terms of the mortgage. The information helps the government to identify which ranchers graze more animals than their permits allow.
The Forest Service in 1999 released hundreds of escrow waiver forms to the Forest Guardians in response to an FOI Act request.
John Horning, executive director of the Guardians, said the organization posted the information to show the financial scope and geographical extent to which bank loans exist on Forest Service lands. Their goal has been to educate the public about the role banks are playing in natural resource protection decisions. Behind the scenes, he said, banks are going to protect the viability of their loans.
(Rice v. United States) — RD
© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press