PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS v. FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COMMISSION et al., SC 19593/19594

Judicial District of New Britain

 

      Freedom of Information; Whether FOIC Applied Wrong Standard in Reviewing Determination that Disclosure of Animal Researchers’ Names May Pose  Safety Risk Under § 1-210 (b) (19) of FOIA; Whether Trial Court Improperly Substituted its Judgment for that of FOIC in Reversing Safety Risk Determination. The plaintiff People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the defendant University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC), seeking UCHC correspondence with the National Institute of Health regarding its animal research in an effort to determine whether UCHC researchers complied with federal protocols that govern animal research.  UCHC disclosed records but redacted the names of animal researchers and federal grant identification numbers that could be used to identify the researchers working on the grants.  It then filed a request with the defendant Department of Administrative Services (DAS) for a determination that the redacted information was protected under General Statutes § 1-210 (b) (19), which exempts records from FOIA disclosure requirements “when there are reasonable grounds to believe that disclosure may result in a safety risk, including the risk of harm to any person [or] any government-owned or leased institution or facility. . . .”  DAS found that there were reasonable grounds to believe that disclosure could result in a safety risk to persons or property and directed that the redacted information not be disclosed.  PETA filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC), and the FOIC upheld DAS’ safety risk determination and dismissed the complaint.  PETA appealed to the trial court, which sustained the appeal, reversed the FOIC’s decision and ordered that the redacted information be disclosed.  The trial court held that the FOIC applied the wrong standard in reviewing the DAS safety risk determination, noting that the FOIC did not consider whether there was a sufficiently detailed record before it reflecting the reasons why an FOIA exemption applied to the materials.  The court noted that PETA sought the identities of only those UCHC researchers who did not comply with the federal research protocols and that there was no evidence showing that disclosure posed any higher risk to those animal researchers who violate research protocols than to animal researchers generally.  The court noted that the FOIC’s decision identified no evidence of a threat to researchers because they violated the federal guidelines.  UCHC and DAS appeal, claiming that the trial court wrongly held that the FOIC applied the wrong standard to its review of the evidence.  They claim that the FOIC properly recognized that § 1-210 (b) (19) vests DAS with broad discretion in determining whether reasonable grounds exist to believe that disclosure of records may result in a safety risk.  UCHC and DAS also claim that the trial court wrongly substituted its judgment for that of DAS and the FOIC in determining that there was no safety risk here.  Finally, they claim that, on finding that the FOIC applied the wrong standard in reviewing DAS safety risk determination, the trial court should have remanded the matter to the FOIC for further proceedings in which it could apply the proper standard of review.