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Animal Legal Defense Fund Inc v. Perdue

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 11, 2018




         This Court is asked to adjudicate for the second time whether the Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) properly denied a request by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (“ALDF”) to intervene in administrative proceedings against the Cricket Hollow Zoo. Last year, after ALDF challenged the first denial, the Court found that USDA's Judicial Officer had incorrectly applied the relevant law, vacated his decision, and remanded the case to the agency for reconsideration. See ALDF v. Vilsack, 237 F.Supp.3d 15 (D.D.C. 2017). Upon reconsideration, the Judicial Officer once again denied ALDF's request to intervene, prompting this related case in which ALDF contends that he again acted arbitrarily, capriciously, and contrary to law.

         ALDF now moves for summary judgment and asks the Court to order the Judicial Officer to permit its intervention. USDA, for its part, moves to dismiss the case as moot or, in the alternative, seeks summary judgment in its favor. The Court concludes that because it could grant ALDF an effective remedy, the case is not moot. Accordingly, the Court will deny USDA's motion to dismiss. But the Court also finds that the Judicial Officer's denial of ALDF's intervention applied the correct legal standards and did so in a reasonable way. Therefore, the Court will grant USDA's motion for summary judgment and deny ALDF's.

         I. Background

         The Court's decision in the earlier iteration of this dispute details many of the relevant facts underlying USDA's enforcement action and ALDF's desired intervention. See Vilsack, 237 F.Supp.3d at 19-20. The Court summarizes here.

         The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (“AWA”), 7 U.S.C. § 2131 et seq., and its implementing regulations establish minimum standards of care and treatment for animals exhibited to the public. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”), a component of USDA, licenses animal exhibitors under the Act and enforces its care and treatment standards.

         Pursuant to that authority, APHIS initiated an administrative enforcement action against Cricket Hollow Zoo, a family-owned menagerie in Manchester, Iowa with a history of non-compliance with the AWA's care and treatment standards. ALDF, which had previously sued Cricket Hollow directly and had sued USDA for its continued renewal of Cricket Hollow's license, sought to intervene in the enforcement proceeding to advocate for revocation of the license and humane relocation of Cricket Hollow's animals (“relocation remedy”). The presiding administrative law judge (“ALJ”) denied ALDF's motion and the Judicial Officer upheld that decision on appeal.

         ALDF sued and this Court found that the Judicial Officer had acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying intervention under § 555(b) of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), which entitles “an interested person” to appear before an agency proceeding “[s]o far as the orderly conduct of public business permits[.]” 5 U.S.C. § 555(b). The Court held that the Judicial Officer had failed to properly consider ALDF's stated interests in intervention and remanded the case to the Judicial Officer to reconsider ALDF's request. Vilsack, 237 F.Supp.3d at 24. In so doing, the Court noted that courts “have for the most part permitted denials [of intervention] . . . when, for example, other parties to the proceeding adequately represent the would-be intervenor's viewpoint or intervention would broaden unduly the issues considered, obstruct or overburden the proceedings, or fail to assist the agency's decisionmaking.” Id. at 22 (alteration in original) (quoting Nichols v. Bd. of Trustees of Asbestos Workers Local 24 Pension Plan, 835 F.2d 881, 897 (D.C. Cir. 1987)).

         On remand, the Judicial Officer again denied ALDF's intervention, in part because he concluded that its arguments for a relocation remedy would not be relevant or useful to the ALJ. Administrative Record (“A.R.”) 696-705. ALDF again sued, contending that this determination failed to properly consider the ways in which the ALJ's enforcement powers could yield the relocation remedy. In the interim, the ALJ issued his decision, documenting significant AWA violations by Cricket Hollow, revoking its license, and imposing a civil monetary penalty. Id. at 708-887. Cricket Hollow administratively appealed that decision, and the appeal is pending. Id. at 894-95.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         “Federal courts lack jurisdiction to decide moot cases because their constitutional authority extends only to actual cases or controversies.” Conservation Force, Inc. v. Jewell, 733 F.3d 1200, 1204 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (quoting Iron Arrow Honor Soc'y v. Heckler, 464 U.S. 67, 70 (1983)). A case becomes moot “when the issues presented are no longer live or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome.” Larsen v. U.S. Navy, 525 F.3d 1, 3-4 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting County of Los Angeles v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625, 631 (1979)). A party may lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome “when, among other things, the court can provide no effective remedy because a party has already obtained all the relief it has sought, ” Jewell, 733 F.3d at 1204 (internal quotation marks and punctuation omitted), or “when intervening events make it impossible to grant the prevailing party effective relief, ” Lemon v. Geren, 514 F.3d 1312, 1315 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Because mootness deprives the court of subject-matter jurisdiction, a motion to dismiss for mootness is properly brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). See DL v. District of Columbia, 187 F.Supp.3d 1, 5 (D.D.C. 2016). In assessing a 12(b)(1) motion, the Court must “treat the complaint's factual allegations as true and afford the plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.” Jeong Seon Han v. Lynch, 223 F.Supp.3d 95, 103 (D.D.C. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted). Moreover, “the Court ‘may consider materials outside the pleadings in deciding whether to grant a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.'” Delta Air Lines, Inc. v. Export-Import Bank, 85 F.Supp.3d 250, 259 (D.D.C. 2015) (quoting Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005)).

         B. Summary Judgment

         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). Summary judgment is the proper stage for determining whether, as a matter of law, an agency action complies with the APA and is supported by the administrative record. Richards v. INS, 554 F.2d 1173, 1177 (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), and precludes the Court from “substitut[ing] 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. (internal quotation marks omitted). 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 ...

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