Mississippi State University v. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., No. 2006-CA-02120-SCT, 2008 WL 2927836 (Miss. July 31, 2008).

The Mississippi Supreme Court has reversed a lower court’s order granting a request by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”) seeking disclosure of documents from Mississippi State University (“MSU”) regarding its care of research animals. Specifically, PETA had requested that MSU release records relating to research and testing that was funded by Iams, a pet food company. PETA subsequently modified its request to seek only certain animal care protocol review forms prepared by MSU in conjunction with Iams pursuant to a series of agreements specifying that MSU would not disclose Iams’ confidential information and that MSU would maintain its animal care facilities in conformance with the federal Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. § 2131 et seq., and all other applicable laws and policies.    

Iams sought a court order prohibiting the disclosure of exempt information under the Mississippi Public Records Act, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 25-61-9 and 79-23-1, on the ground that the information PETA requested constitutes trade secrets. In particular, Iams asserted that the data and information reveals aspects of Iams’ “strategic product development portfolio” that is not generally known by its competitors in the marketplace, including its formulations, improvements, and new product development. After reviewing relevant documents in camera, the trial court, however, concluded that, with the exception of a section entitled “Experimental Design” and certain personal information about the researchers, the protocol forms were not exempt from disclosure because the Act only covers protocols developed by MSU under contract with Iams, which, it found, was not the case here.

However, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed because the unrefuted evidence on the record established that the information in the protocol forms was developed by MSU pursuant to its agreements with Iams; thus, the “plain and unambiguous language” of the Act requires exemption of the substantive portions of the forms. See 2008 WL 2927836, *13-14. In addition, the Court observed that the protocol forms are required by the federal Animal Welfare Act, which also exempts from public disclosure “trade secrets or commercial or financial information which is privileged or confidential.” Id. at *14, citing 7 U.S.C. § 2131(a)(6)(B). In closing, the Court noted that “[a]ny disagreements with those directives are best aimed toward the Legislature.” Id.