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Animal Legal Defense Fund, Inc. v. Vilsack

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 15, 2017

THOMAS J. VILSACK, et al., Defendants.


          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge

         The United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) is in the midst of an administrative enforcement action against a family-owned zoo in Iowa for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The Animal Legal Defense Fund (“ALDF”), which has long criticized the zoo's care and handling of its animals, sought to intervene in that proceeding but was prevented from doing so by the presiding administrative law judge. After the agency Judicial Officer upheld the ALJ's decision on the grounds that the ALDF's stated interests were beyond the scope of the proceeding, ALDF challenged the Judicial Officer's ruling in this Court. It principally contends that the Judicial Officer's decision was contrary to Section 555(b) of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), which allows “interested persons” to participate in agency proceedings “so far as the orderly conduct of public business permits.” Both sides now move for summary judgment.

         The Court finds that ALDF's demonstrated interest in the welfare of the zoo's animals falls squarely within the scope of the USDA enforcement proceeding. The Judicial Officer's finding to the contrary was therefore arbitrary and capricious under the APA. Because the Judicial Officer did not address whether ALDF's participation would otherwise impede “the orderly conduct of public business, ” there is no basis in the record to uphold the denial of its motion to intervene under APA Section 555(b). The Court will, accordingly, grant ALDF's motion, vacate the Judicial Officer's ruling, and remand the case to the agency for a more thorough consideration of ALDF's motion in light of factors relevant to third-party participation in agency proceedings under Section 555(b).

         I. Background

         The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (“AWA”), 7 U.S.C. § 2131 et seq., establishes minimum standards for the humane care and treatment of animals that are exhibited to the public. The USDA, through the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (“APHIS”), licenses animal exhibitors under the AWA and enforces compliance with the Act's care and treatment standards. A.R. 4.

         The Cricket Hollow Zoo is a family-owned menagerie in Manchester, Iowa. The zoo has custody of some 200 animals, including lions, tigers, and bears. A.R. 74. Since obtaining its exhibitor license from APHIS in 1994, the zoo has had a checkered history of compliance with the AWA. In 2004, APHIS issued an “Official Warning” to the zoo for failing to maintain adequate shelter and wholesome food supplies for its animals. Id. at 81. The zoo subsequently paid two separate monetary penalties to settle alleged AWA violations stemming from periodic APHIS inspections. A.R. 5.

         In 2014, ALDF brought separate lawsuits against Cricket Hollow and USDA. The former alleged that the zoo had violated the Endangered Species Act's prohibition on the “taking” of protected animals. See Compl., Kuehl v. Sellner, 14-cv-2034 (N.D. Iowa June 11, 2014). The suit against USDA challenged AHPIS's continued renewal of Cricket Hollow's exhibitor license in light of the zoo's habitual non-compliance with the AWA. See Compl., ALDF v. Vilsack, 14-cv-1462 (D.D.C. Aug. 25, 2014). A fellow judge of this Court ultimately resolved that suit in USDA's favor, holding that the agency lawfully adopted and applied a license renewal scheme that does not condition renewal on an exhibitor's compliance with the AWA's animal welfare standards. See ALDF v. Vilsack, 169 F.Supp.3d 6, 8 (D.D.C. 2016).[1]

         While ALDF's suit against the Department was pending, APHIS initiated the present enforcement action against the zoo. APHIS re-alleged many of the same violations it had previously cited, and further accused the zoo of willfully violating AWA provisions and associated regulations pertaining to veterinary care. A.R. 5. ALDF sought to participate in the enforcement action by offering to provide APHIS attorneys with evidence generated from discovery in ALDF's Endangered Species Act litigation against the zoo. A.R. 121-22. APHIS declined the offer, contending that it was inappropriate given ALDF's pending lawsuit against APHIS over its renewal of Cricket Hollow's license.

         Thus rebuffed, ALDF filed a motion to intervene in the enforcement proceeding. A.R. 50. ALDF based its motion on Section 555(b) of the APA, which allows “interested persons” to participate in agency proceedings “so far as the orderly conduct of public business permits.” 5 U.S.C. § 555(b). The presiding administrative law judge denied the motion. A.R. 126-27. In a brief opinion, the ALJ noted that the authority to find violations of the AWA and impose appropriate penalties “rests solely with the Secretary [of Agriculture].” Id. at 126. Intervention by ALDF, the ALJ continued, “would interfere with that authority.” Id.

         ALDF appealed the ALJ's ruling to USDA's Judicial Officer. In addition to arguing that the ALJ erred in denying intervention under Section 555(b) of the APA, ALDF also maintained that it was entitled to intervene under APA Section 554(c)-which permits “interested parties” to intervene in formal agency adjudications-and under USDA's Rules of Practice Governing Formal Adjudicative Proceedings (“Rules of Practice”). A.R. 132.

         The Judicial Officer denied ALDF's administrative appeal. With respect to intervention under Section 555(b), he ruled that, even assuming ALDF was an “interested person, ” its appearance in the proceeding would disrupt “the orderly conduct of public business.” A.R. 216. Echoing the reasoning of the ALJ, the Judicial Officer explained that the purpose of the enforcement proceeding was solely to determine whether the zoo violated the AWA and, if so, what the proper sanction should be. Id. ALDF's “stated interests, ” in his view, were “beyond the scope of this proceeding.” Id. Moving to intervention under APA § 554(c), the Judicial Officer found that because ALDF was not “entitled as a matter of right to be admitted as a party” to the proceeding, it had not met the APA's definition of “party, ” see APA § 551(3), and therefore was not an “interested party” as required for the intervention under Section 554(c). Id. at 215. Finally, the Judicial Officer concluded that USDA's Rules of Practice “do not explicitly provide for intervention by third parties, and the Judicial Officer has long held that [they] do not provide for intervention by third parties.” Id. at 217. ALDF then filed suit in this Court challenging the Judicial Officer's rulings, and both sides now move for summary judgment.

         II. Legal Standards

         Summary judgment may be granted if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is material if it is capable of affecting the outcome of litigation. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id.

         Summary judgment is the proper stage for determining whether, as a matter of law, an agency action is supported by the administrative record and is consistent with the APA. Richards v. INS, 554 F.2d 1173, 1777 (D.C. Cir. 1977). The APA provides that “[t]he reviewing court shall . . . hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings, and conclusions found to be arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law . . . .” 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A). Arbitrary and capricious review is “narrow.” Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 416 (1971). The Court is not to “substitute its judgment for that of the agency.” Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n of U.S., Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983). Rather, the Court must determine whether the agency “examine[d] the relevant data and articulate[d] a satisfactory explanation for its action including a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made.” Id. But even if the agency did not fully explain its decision, the Court may uphold it “if the agency's path may reasonably be discerned.” Bowman Transp., Inc. v. Arkansas-Best Freight System, Inc., 419 U.S. ...

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