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Munsell v. United States Dep't of Agriculture

June 13, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth, United States District Judge


This matter comes before the Court on the plaintiff's Motion [49] for Discovery on Jurisdictional and Exhaustion Issues. Having considered the plaintiff's motion, the opposition thereto, the defendants' previous Motions to Dismiss [27, 28] and the plaintiffs' opposition thereto, the Court will deny the plaintiff's Motion for Discovery on Jurisdictional and Exhaustion Issues and grant the defendants' Motions to Dismiss. The Court agrees with the defendants' assertion that plaintiff has failed to exhaust all administrative remedies as required by the Federal Crop Insurance Reform and Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act of 1994. 7 U.S.C. § 6912(e) (2002). As the jurisdictional finding is dispositive, the Court will disregard as irrelevant the other issues raised by defendants (i.e., standing, mootness). Further, the Court finds that plaintiffs, having failed to allege that they have exhausted administrative remedies, have no grounds to request discovery on that question under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f). The Court will disregard the remainder of the plaintiffs' Motion as a result of the Court's lack of jurisdiction.


Plaintiffs John W. Munsell of Montana Quality Foods and Processing ("MQF") and the American Association of Meat Processors allege that defendants, the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") and Dr. Nathaniel Clark, vindictively employed regulatory actions against MQF in retaliation for MQF's insistence that the USDA undertake efforts to trace the source of bacterial contamination back to MQF's beef suppliers.

MQF was in the business of buying ten-pound lots of coarse ground beef ("chubs") from larger meat suppliers and further processing the beef for sale to individual consumers. On January 28, 2002, the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service ("FSIS") alerted Munsell that a ground beef sample taken from MQF's facilities 5 days prior tested positive for Escherichia coli O157:H7 contamination ("E. coli"). This strain of E. coli can cause severe foodborne illness, possibly resulting in death. Munsell alleges that the USDA imposed "a form of strict liability on small plants" for contaminated meat processed in those plants, without regard to the possibility of the meat's contamination prior to processing. (Am. Compl. ¶ 18.) As a result of the positive E. coli test, MQF initiated a recall of 270 pounds of beef. (Id. ¶ 21.) Further, MQF was required to amend its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan ("HACCP") to address the source of the E. coli contamination.

Munsell believed the source of the contamination to be one of MQF's suppliers, so he sought to amend the plan to account for the source of all the meat products in MQF's facilities. (Id. ¶ 25.) Munsell alleges that FSIS inspectors refused to test unopened chubs, based on its policy of not inspecting chubs received from a supplier bearing USDA approval. (Id.) As a result of this refusal, Munsell undertook a series of communications for which he alleges that he suffered retaliatory action at the hands of the USDA. Munsell claims to have lodged complaints against FSIS' policy on at least four occasions. First, on February 4 and 5, 2002, Munsell complained to Dr. Nathaniel Clark, District Manager of the FSIS District encompassing MQF's facilities. (Id. ¶ 30.) Then, on February 7, 2002, Munsell complained to the office of Senator Max Baucus. (Id. ¶ 31.) Third, on February 8, 2002, Munsell complained to the office of Congressman Denny Rehberg. (Id.) On February 25, 2002, Munsell complained to "USDA officials and Congressional staffs." (Id. ¶ 32.) Finally, on February 27, 2002, Munsell alleged, to Senator Baucus' office, that Munsell's complaints were subjecting MQF to retaliation. (Id. ¶ 33.)

Munsell alleges that Clark contacted him on February 26, 2002, to notify him that FSIS planned to suspend inspection of MQF's facilities (and consequently, approval of its product), reasoning that the E. coli contamination of MQF's beef was sufficient to sustain a determination that MQF's HACCP plan was inadequate. (Id. ¶ 40.) On March 12, 2002, Clark told Munsell that FSIS would hold MQF's suspension in abeyance, based on what Munsell alleges was an "economically coerced" concession: that MQF would engage in costly sampling of incoming chubs. (Id. ¶ 41.) Munsell claims that between February 26 and July 1, 2002, the FSIS "arbitrarily and capriciously" required MQF to rewrite its HACCP plan on at least ten separate occasions, threatening the withdrawal of inspectors for failure to comply. MQF claims that due to FSIS' conduct, it was unable to grind its own beef -- beef not purchased as chubs from large plants -- from February 26 to July 3, 2002. (Id. ¶ 43.)

As a result of the damages MQF and Munsell suffered due to the USDA's alleged conduct, on October 13, 2004, plaintiffs brought this suit against the USDA, along with a Bivens claim against defendant Clark. See generally Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) (concluding that a constitutional cause of action, with monetary remedy, existed for defendants' violation of plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights).


I. Legal Standard for Dismissal

A court must dismiss any action that it lacks the subject matter jurisdiction to hear, at any stage of the proceedings when the absence of jurisdiction is made apparent -- through motion of the parties or the on court's own initiative. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(h)(3); Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 126 S.Ct. 1235, 1240, 1244 (Feb. 22, 2006). In determining whether it has jurisdiction to adjudicate a case, a court will construe the complaint liberally, and allow the plaintiff all reasonable inferences in his favor. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974).

In claims brought pursuant to a federal statute, courts examine whether a statutory requirement is a prescribed part of the claim, or whether Congress intended the requirement to be jurisdictional in nature. See Arbaugh, 126 S.Ct. at 1245. If a requirement is jurisdictional, failure to meet it must result in dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). Accordingly, "if the statute does mandate exhaustion, a court cannot excuse it." Avocados Plus, Inc. v. Veneman, 370 F.3d 1243, 1247 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (citing Shalala v. Illinois Council on Long Term Care, 529 U.S. 1, 13 (2000)) (emphasis added).

Further, and of particular consequence in this case, is the rule that constitutional claims do not automatically confer subject matter jurisdiction on federal courts when other claims against the defending party, premised on the same facts, would be subject to a jurisdictional exhaustion requirement. Weaver v. U.S. Info. Agency, 87 F.3d 1429, 1433 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (citing Steadman v. Gov'r, U.S. Soldiers' & Airmen's Home, 918 F.3d 963, 967 (D.C. Cir. 1990)); Convertino v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 393 F. Supp. 2d 42, ...

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