Federal Court Upholds Respondent Confidentiality
OKLAHOMA CITY, MARCH 17, 2009. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma ruled last week in State of Oklahoma v. Tyson Foods that the personal identification of respondents in survey research is confidential information. Oklahoma v. Tyson Foods is an environmental impact assessment case, in which Defendant Tyson Foods, moved to compel disclosure of respondent-identifiable information related to surveys conducted by the Plaintiff State of Oklahoma, and the State, in a counter motion, sought the court’s protection of survey participants’ personal information as confidential information.
AAPOR (American Association for Public Opinion Research) and CASRO (Council of American Survey Research Organizations) jointly submitted an Amicus (“friend of the court”) Brief on behalf of their members and the research industry, and, specifically, in support of Westat and the other research organizations whose survey reports were submitted as evidence in the case. The surveys were part of a contingent valuation study to determine the amount of damages caused by excess phosphorous from poultry waste and other sources in Oklahoma’s Illinois River System. Tyson Foods, argued that discovery of respondent identities was relevant and necessary to fully critique the States’ assessment of damages.
Citing the mandatory codes of standards and professional ethics of AAPOR and CASRO, the Court affirmed that respondent identities are confidential information, which, if disclosed, could be harmful to the parties involved. Further, the Court stated that the Defendants had failed to meet the burden of proof needed to compel discovery of this confidential information. The Court stated:
Defendants have failed to persuade the Court that such [confidential information] is sufficiently relevant and necessary to their case to outweigh the harm of undermining the public interest in insuring the ability of surveys to elicit accurate information from respondents.
The Amicus Brief filed by CASRO and AAPOR asserted that the guarantee of respondent confidentiality is fundamental to the professional practice of survey research, and is assured through adherence to mandatory and enforceable codes of standards and ethics. The Amicus stated that respondent confidentiality “is warranted (1) to protect survey research results against inaccuracies or bias as the candor of the respondents’ answers may be inhibited by public disclosure and (2) to ensure the free flow of information and to provide the foundation for unbiased survey data.”
CASRO and/or AAPOR have successfully filed Amicus briefs in support of Research Respondent Confidentiality in about a dozen legal and court challenges over the years. This advocacy is a valuable part of the service that CASRO and AAPOR provide to their members. The impact of these efforts, however extends beyond association members. AAPOR President, Richard Kulka, and CASRO President, Diane Bowers, noted that court opinions like the one in Tyson Foods which explicitly affirmed the necessity of protecting respondent confidentiality and the value of survey research, also affirms the research industry’s integrity and commitment to ethical and professional practice.
CASRO’s General Counsel and principal author of the Amicus Brief, Duane L. Berlin noted, “this Federal Court decision is an important victory for AAPOR, CASRO, and the entire research industry.”
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