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Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Vilsack

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 14, 2016

THOMAS J. VILSACK, et al., Defendants


COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY United States District Judge

In this case, Plaintiffs Animal Legal Defense Fund, Tracey Kuehl, and Lisa Kuehl challenge the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2015 renewal of the license for the operation of the Cricket Hollow Zoo. The Cricket Hollow Zoo is a private zoo in Manchester, Iowa, which includes lions, tigers, bears, baboons, lemurs, dogs, rabbits, and pigs. Plaintiffs claim that the 2015 renewal was unlawful under the Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. § 2131-59, the federal statute governing such facilities, and that the agency acted in a manner that was arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise unlawful in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (“A PA ”). Plaintiffs also claim that the agency’s “pattern and practice” of renewing the license for this facility, at times when the facility was in violation of the substantive standards of the Animal Welfare Act, violates both the Animal Welfare Act and the APA.[1] Now before the Court is Defendants’ [37] Motion to Dismiss Supplemental Complaint.

Upon consideration of the pleadings, [2] the relevant legal authorities, and the record for purposes of this motion, the Court GRANTS Defendants’ [37] Motion to Dismiss Supplemental Complaint. Essentially, this case turns on whether the agency’s interpretation of the Animal Welfare Act through the regulations that it has issued constitutes a permissible interpretation of the statutory framework. Because the Court concludes that those regulations do constitute a permissible interpretation, and because the licenses were lawfully renewed pursuant to those regulations, Plaintiffs cannot prevail on any of their claims. This case is dismissed in its entirety.


For the purposes of the motion before the Court, the Court accepts as true the well-pleaded allegations in Plaintiffs’ Supplemental Complaint. The Court does “not accept as true, however, the plaintiff’s legal conclusions or inferences that are unsupported by the facts alleged.” Ralls Corp. v. Comm. on Foreign Inv. in U.S., 758 F.3d 296, 315 (D.C. Cir. 2014). The Court reserves further additional presentation of the background, as necessary, for the discussion of the legal issues below.

A. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

Under the Animal Welfare Act, a license is required in order for “dealers” or “exhibitors” to operate.[3] Specifically, under the Act,

[n]o dealer or exhibitor shall sell or offer to sell or transport or offer for transportation, in commerce, to any research facility or for exhibition or for use as a pet any animal, or buy, sell, offer to buy or sell, transport or offer for transportation, in commerce, to or from another dealer or exhibitor under this chapter any animals, unless and until such dealer or exhibitor shall have obtained a license from the Secretary and such license shall not have been suspended or revoked.

7 U.S.C.A. § 2134 (emphasis added). Accordingly, the statute authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to issue licenses for “dealers” and “exhibitors” under certain conditions:

The Secretary shall issue licenses to dealers and exhibitors upon application therefor in such form and manner as he may prescribe and upon payment of such fee established pursuant to 2153 of this title: Provided, That no such license shall be issued until the dealer or exhibitor shall have demonstrated that his facilities comply with the standards promulgated by the Secretary pursuant to section 2143 of this title[.]

7 U.S.C. § 2133 (emphasis added). As referenced in this provision, section 2143 includes various substantive requirements for the “humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation of animals.” 7 U.S.C. § 2143 (section title).

The Animal Welfare Act also includes several provisions directed at enforcement by the agency. First, if the Secretary has “reason to believe” that a licensee “has violated or is violating any provision of this chapter, or any of the rules or regulations or standards promulgated by the Secretary hereunder, he may suspend such person's license temporarily, but not to exceed 21 days.” Id. § 2149(a). Second, “after notice and opportunity for hearing, ” the Secretary “may suspend [a license] for such additional period as he may specify, or revoke such license, if such violation is determined to have occurred.” Id. (emphasis added). Third, the Secretary may assess civil penalties for violations of the statute. Id. § 2149(b). And fourth, the statute authorizes criminal penalties for knowing violations of the statutory provisions. Id. § 2149(d). Any person subject to an order of the Secretary, including license suspensions, license revocations, and civil penalties, may appeal such an order to the appropriate United States Court of Appeals. Id. § 2149(c).

In addition, the statute authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture “to promulgate such rules, regulations, and orders as he may deem necessary in order to effectuate the purposes of” the statute.” 7 U.S.C. § 2151. Indeed, “[p]ursuant to this section, USDA has adopted comprehensive renewal regulations that combine purely administrative requirements, random inspections, and discretionary enforcement proceedings.” Animal Legal Defense Fund v. U.S. Dep’t of Agric., 789 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir. 2015).

In Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals cogently described the regulatory requirements for licensing and renewals:

On or before the expiration date of his or her one-year license, an exhibitor must submit a completed application form to the appropriate USDA regional office fulfilling three, purely administrative criteria. [1] First, the exhibitor certifies by signing the application form that, to the best of her knowledge or belief, she is compliant and will continue to comply with all AWA animal wildlife standards. [2] Second, the exhibitor pays an annual fee calculated according to USDA’s fee schedule that varies according to the number of animals owned, held, or exhibited. [3] Third, the exhibitor submits an annual report detailing the number of animals owned, held, or exhibited. So long as an exhibitor meets these three criteria, even if her facility fails to comply with animal wildlife standards on the license expiration date, USDA must grant her a renewal. … Otherwise, the license automatically terminates due to expiration.

Animal Legal Defense Fund, 789 F.3d at 1211 (citations omitted). The regulations also elaborate on the statutory scheme for enforcement, including provisions for random inspections by USDA officials and a process for suspending or revoking licenses, as well for levying civil penalties. See Id. at 1212. Notably, any suspension longer than 21 days, license revocations, and civil penalties require notice and a hearing. Id.; see also 9 C.F.R. § 2.12.

B. Factual and Procedural Background

Tom and Pamela Sellner initially obtained a license for the Cricket Hollow Zoo on May 27, 1994. Compl. ¶ 14. The USDA has renewed their license each year since then. Id. Plaintiffs allege that the USDA has issued numerous notices of violation with respect to the Zoo, including several associated fines, in the years since 2004. See Id. ¶¶ 105-119. Plaintiffs further allege that, upon information and belief, the USDA renewed the license in late April 2015 or in May 2015. Id. ¶ 125. The Administrative Record reflects that the license is currently set to expire, if not renewed, on May 27, 2016, pursuant to the 2015-2016 license certificate. See Pls.’ Opp’n, Ex. A at 8 (certified list of contents of administrative record); id. at 11 (2015-2016 certificate).

Plaintiffs initially brought this action challenging the 2014 renewal of the Cricket Hollow Zoo license, as well as the alleged pattern and practice of unlawful license renewals. After the Court resolved the parties’ disputes regarding the necessity of producing the administrative record at this stage of the proceedings and regarding the scope of the administrative record, [4] the Court granted leave for Plaintiffs to file a supplemental complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ...

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