Monday, November 22, 2004

Judge's Rejection Of Data Quality Suit Seen As “Setback” For Industry

A judge's rejection of an industry suit seeking federal court review of the data EPA and other agencies use to make decisions is being viewed as a setback for industry officials who hoped the decision would set a precedent allowing courts to review agencies' data decisions.

While the industry plaintiffs in the suit, Salt Institute and Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Thompson, are considering appealing the ruling, one informed source says industry groups may now have to seek another case to help them win judicial review of agencies' data quality decisions. The “ruling was a significant setback but not a permanent one, because [we have] under consideration another legal action that would reverse this one,” the industry source says.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee ruled Nov. 15 in Salt Institute and Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Thompson that complaints over agency data are not reviewable in court, significantly limiting the potential of the data quality law, since petitioners have no recourse if an agency rejects a data challenge.

“An agency's decision to deny a party's information quality complaint is not reviewable by this court,” Lee said.

The Information Quality Act (IQA), enacted in December 2000 as part of an unrelated appropriations bill, required the White House Office of Management and Budget and federal agencies to establish data quality guidelines, including a mechanism to request corrections to data that allegedly fail to meet the requirements of the act.

But industry and other parties filing data quality petitions currently have no recourse if an agency decides to reject a petition, limiting the power of the tool.

Earlier this year, an informal ruling from a federal district court in Minnesota suggested that courts did not have jurisdiction to review data quality challenges. But several industry sources say the Salt Institute decision is a much more significant blow for proponents of judicial review.

The Salt Institute suit targets a study that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) used to justify a 2002 recommendation urging consumers to restrict sodium intake by salt consumption in order to limit high blood pressure.

In the Nov.15 ruling Lee finds that the IQA and Administrative Procedure Act do not provide courts with the authority to review agency decisions to reject data quality challenges. “There is nothing in the IQA that provides a right of action in a court of law for alleged violations of its provisions . . . the language of the [act] reflects Congress' intent that any challenges to the quality of information disseminated by federal agencies should take place in administrative proceedings before federal agencies and not in the courts.”

Lee also ruled that both parties lacked standing because they could not demonstrate that they suffered injury due to the decision by HHS to publicize the salt study.

A spokesman for the Salt Institute says the ruling is a “pretty sweeping negation of the potential of the act,” but that the Institute and the Chamber of Commerce may appeal on the grounds that the judge's decision implies that the IQA did essentially nothing to change existing practices at agencies for dealing with information challenges.

“We thought when the act was passed that the intent was to upgrade the standards for the quality of data” and to ensure that data were reproducible, the source says. But the source acknowledges that the law is “silent” on the question of judicial review.

Another industry source says it is unclear whether the two parties should appeal their case or not, since they still would have difficulty establishing that they have standing to sue.

The industry source says the Salt Institute and Chamber of Commerce may have jeopardized their case by failing to adequately demonstrate standing to sue. “In the judge's mind, [the two issues] are not” separate, the source says.

Date: November 22, 2004

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