Justia Summary

Media filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), seeking the names and addresses of all retail stores that participate in the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and each store’s annual SNAP food stamp redemption data from fiscal years 2005-2010. The USDA declined the request, invoking FOIA Exemption 4, which shields from disclosure “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential,” 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(4). The Eighth Circuit affirmed an order requiring disclosure. The USDA declined to appeal. The Food Marketing Institute, a trade association of grocers, was permitted to intervene.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, first holding that Institute had standing. Where commercial or financial information is customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy, the information is “confidential” under Exemption 4. The Institute’s retailers customarily do not disclose store-level SNAP data or make it publicly available; to induce retailers to participate in SNAP and provide store-level information, the government has long promised retailers that it will keep their information private. The Court declined to “arbitrarily constrict Exemption 4 by adding limitations found nowhere in its terms.”