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Alfa International Seafood, Inc. v. Ross

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 10, 2018

ALFA INTERNATIONAL SEAFOOD, INC., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
WILBUR L. ROSS, JR., U.S. Secretary of Commerce, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          AMIT P. MEHTA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs, nine U.S.-based seafood importers, processors, and harvesters, instituted this action to challenge and invalidate the Seafood Traceability Rule, a federal regulation aimed at remedying “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing and seafood fraud. See Seafood Import Monitoring Program, 81 Fed. Reg. 88, 975 (Dec. 9, 2016). As relevant here, before the start of summary judgment briefing, three environmental groups-Oceana, Inc., the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., and the Center for Biological Diversity (collectively, the “Conservation Groups” or “Groups”)-sought to intervene in the case to defend the Rule, see Mot. to Intervene, ECF No. 24, but the court denied their request on April 17, 2017, see Mem. Op. & Order, ECF No. 44 [hereinafter April 17 Order].

         The Conservation Groups noticed their appeal from the April 17 Order, see ECF No. 70, and, while that appeal was pending, the court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants and upheld the Rule, see Order, ECF No. 88. Plaintiffs opted not to appeal that final judgment, rendering the Conservation Groups' appeal of the April 17 Order moot. Accordingly, upon the Groups' motion, the D.C. Circuit dismissed the Groups' appeal and remanded the case to this court with instructions to “consider the [Groups'] request for vacatur as a motion for relief from [the April 17 Order] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b).” See Mandate, ECF No. 90, Order, ECF No. 90-1 (quoting U.S. Bancorp Mortg. Co. v. Bonner Mall P'ship, 513 U.S. 18, 29 (1994)).

         Now before the court is the Conservation Groups' Motion to Vacate the April 17 Order. See Mot. to Vacate Order on Mot. to Intervene, ECF No. 92 [hereinafter Groups' Mot.]. Plaintiffs oppose the motion. Pls.' Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. to Vacate Order on Mot. to Intervene, ECF No. 93 [hereinafter Pls.' Opp'n]. The matter is now ripe for consideration.

         I.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6) “provides courts with authority adequate to enable them to vacate judgments whenever such action is appropriate to accomplish justice.” Liljeberg v. Health Servs. Acquisition Corp., 486 U.S. 847, 863-64 (1988) (internal quotation marks omitted). Pursuant to that Rule, a court may, in its discretion, grant relief from a judgment for “any . . . reason that justifies relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(6). “Mootness provides such a reason.” Rubin v. The Islamic Republic of Iran, 563 F.Supp.2d 38, 40 (D.D.C. 2008). When a civil case becomes moot while awaiting appellate review, “the established practice in the federal system is to reverse or vacate the judgment below.” Sands v. NLRB, 825 F.3d 778, 785 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (cleaned up). Vacatur “clears the path for future relitigation of the issues between the parties and eliminates a judgment, review of which was prevented through happenstance.” United States v. Munsingwear, Inc., 340 U.S. 36, 40 (1950).

         “Because vacatur is equitable in nature, [courts] look to notions of fairness when deciding whether to use the remedy.” Sands, 825 F.3d at 785; see also Bancorp, 513 U.S. at 25 (“A party who seeks review of the merits of an adverse ruling, but is frustrated by the vagaries of circumstance, ought not in fairness be forced to acquiesce in the judgment.”). As such, “[c]ourts usually vacate a judgment ‘when mootness results from unilateral action of the party who prevailed below' or from circumstances beyond the control of the parties.” Sands, 825 F.3d at 785 (quoting Alvarez v. Smith, 558 U.S. 87, 98 (2009) (Stevens, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part)). “By contrast, . . . when a case becomes moot because the parties reached a settlement-and the petitioner therefore ‘voluntarily forfeited' a remedy in court-vacatur is typically inappropriate.” Id. (citing Bancorp, 513 U.S. at 22-25); see also Rio Grande Silvery Minnow v. Bureau of Reclamation, 601 F.3d 1096, 1129 n.20 (10th Cir. 2010) (explaining that Bancorp's rationale, which addresses appellate court vacatur, likewise “governs the district court's decision whether to vacate its own judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)”).

         II.

         The Conservation Groups contend that because circumstances beyond their control mooted their appeal of the court's intervention decision, this court should employ the “normal rule” and vacate the April 17 Order. Groups' Mot., Mem. of P. & A., ECF No. 92-1, at 3 (quoting Camreta v. Greene, 563 U.S. 692, 713 (2011)). In response, Plaintiffs say that vacatur is inappropriate for three reasons: (1) the Conservation Groups lack Article III standing to pursue any relief in this matter; (2) the Conservation Groups failed to timely appeal the court's April 17 Order; and (3) the established practice of vacatur is unwarranted in a case such as this one, where the unsuccessful intervenors' side prevailed on the merits. Pls.' Opp'n at 2. The court considers Plaintiffs' challenges to vacatur in turn.

         A.

         The court quickly dispenses with Plaintiffs' standing argument. “[S]tanding is assessed as of the time a suit commences.” Chamber of Commerce of U.S. v. EPA, 642 F.3d 192, 199 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting Del Monte Fresh Produce Co. v. United States, 570 F.3d 316, 324 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (alteration in original)). Although the court denied intervention based in part on lack of standing, see April 17 Order at 1-5, there can be no dispute that the Conservation Groups had Article III standing to appeal from that adverse ruling, see 15A Charles Alan Wright, et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 3902 (2d ed.) (“Appeal is taken by one or more persons who were proper parties in the district court and who are obviously aggrieved by the judgment. Such appellants have standing to appeal.”); see also Alt. Research & Dev. Found. v. Veneman, 262 F.3d 406, 409 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (“[D]enial of intervention as of right is an appealable, final order regardless of the merits of the claim for intervention as of right.”). As the Circuit dismissed the Groups' appeal on mootness grounds but remanded to consider the question of vacatur, the Conservation Groups' standing to seek such relief cannot be in doubt.

         Plaintiffs nevertheless insist that the Conservation Groups lack standing because “there is no longer a live district court case in which to intervene.” Pls.' Opp'n at 6. But that argument fails because it conflates the concepts of standing and mootness. To put the difference succinctly, “[t]he requisite personal interest that must exist at the commencement of the litigation (standing) must continue throughout its existence (mootness).” U.S. Parole Comm'n v. Geraghty, 445 U.S. 388, 397 (1980) (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, the Groups' appeal from the order denying intervention is moot, but the Groups' personal stake in the litigation remains unaltered, particularly since the sole remaining issue of vacatur directly affects their interests. The finality of the court's decision on the merits therefore does not strip the Conservation Groups of standing to pursue vacatur of the court's April 17 Order.

         Alternatively, Plaintiffs argue that the Groups lack standing because they cannot demonstrate the requisite injury in fact insofar as they have “failed to discuss how the district court's decision, which was case- and fact-specific, would have any adverse precedential effect.” Pls.' Opp'n at 7. Plaintiffs, however, cite no authority for the proposition that, to establish standing, a party or putative intervenor seeking vacatur must show that allowing the adverse decision to remain will have an “adverse precedential effect.” See generally Pls.' Opp'n. That is not surprising. Accepting Plaintiffs' position would directly contradict the Circuit's instruction that “typically” the district court's decision should be vacated when that decision is no longer amenable to review due to mootness or a lack of standing. See Maydak v. United States, 630 F.3d 166, 177 (D.C. Cir. 2010). In any ...


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