People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., No. 5:15-CV-429-D

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
Writing for the CourtJAMES C. DEVER III Chief United States District Judge
Decision Date12 July 2016
Docket NumberNo. 5:15-CV-429-D


No. 5:15-CV-429-D


July 12, 2016


On August 26, 2015, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. ("PETA" or "plaintiff") filed a complaint against the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") and Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the USDA, in his official capacity (collectively, "defendants") [D.E. 1].1 PETA alleges that the USDA license-renewal process for animal exhibitions violates the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. §§ 701-08. On October 30, 2015, the USDA answered [D.E. 7] and moved for judgment on the pleadings [D.E. 8, 9]. PETA responded in opposition [D.E. 16], and the USDA replied [D.E. 17]. As discussed below, the court grants defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings.


The USDA regulates the treatment of animals in zoos and other exhibits. See Compl. [D.E. 1] ¶¶ 10, 17, 19-21. It licenses animal exhibitors, inspects their facilities, and issues citations to exhibitors whose facilities fail to meet the USDA's animal-treatment standards. See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 1,

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17, 20-21, 32-47, 56, 59, 62, 69, 71-72, 75, 91, 93-95. The USDA also accepts complaints from third parties who accuse exhibitors of violating animal-treatment standards. See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 76-82.

USDA exhibitor licenses expire after one year. Id. ¶ 23. Exhibitors must renew licenses annually by submitting a signed application form, an annual fee, and a report of the animals owned, held, or exhibited during the previous year. Id. ¶¶ 23-25. By signing the renewal form, an exhibitor certifies compliance with the applicable regulations and standards. Id. ¶ 26. If an exhibitor completes each of these requirements, the USDA renews the license, even if the USDA recently cited the exhibitor for violating animal-treatment standards. Id. ¶¶ 28, 48-50; see, e.g., id. ¶¶ 54-62, 65-68, 71-75, 91-103, 110, 115, 118-22, 124, 144-46, 148, 152, 154, 156, 158.

PETA is a non-profit organization "dedicated to protecting animals from abuse, neglect, and cruelty." Id. ¶ 9. PETA's complaint alleges that the USDA has a "policy, pattern, and practice" of issuing renewals to noncompliant exhibitors, and it gives five specific examples of exhibitors whose licenses were renewed despite recent complaints or citations. Id. ¶¶ 48, 51-167. This policy directly frustrates PETA's mission and causes it to divert resources away from its other activities. See id. ¶¶ 9-16. PETA seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) permits a party to move for judgment on the pleadings "[a]fter the pleadings are closed—but early enough not to delay trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). A court should grant a motion for judgment on the pleadings only if "the moving party has clearly established that no material issue of fact remains to be resolved and the party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Park Univ. Enters. v. Am. Cas. Co. of Reading, 442 F.3d 1239, 1244 (10th Cir. 2006) (quotation omitted), abrogation on other grounds recognized by Magnus, Inc. v. Diamond State Ins. Co., 545 F. App'x 750 (10th Cir. 2013) (unpublished); see Mayfield v. Nat'l Ass'n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 674 F.3d 369, 375 (4th Cir. 2012); Burbach Broad. Co. of Del. v. Elkins Radio Corp., 278 F.3d 401, 405-06 (4th Cir. 2002).

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A court ruling on a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings applies the same standard as in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. See, e.g., Mayfield, 674 F.3d at 375; Burbach Broad. Co. of Del., 278 F.3d at 405-06. A motion under either rule tests the legal and factual sufficiency of the claim. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-80, 684 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 554-63 (2007); Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008). To withstand a Rule 12(c) motion, a pleading "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quotation omitted); see Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570; Giarratano, 521 F.3d at 302. In considering the motion, the court must construe the facts and reasonable inferences in the "light most favorable to the [nonmoving party]." Massey v. Ojaniit, 759 F.3d 343, 347, 352-53 (4th Cir. 2014) (quotation omitted); see Clatterbuck v. City of Charlottesville, 708 F.3d 549, 557 (4th Cir. 2013); Burbach Broad. Co. of Del., 278 F.3d at 406. A court need not accept a pleading's legal conclusions. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79; Giarratano, 521 F.3d at 302. Nor must it "accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments." Giarratano, 521 F.3d at 302 (quotation omitted). Rather, plaintiffs' allegations must "nudge[] their claims," Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, beyond the realm of "mere possibility" into ''plausib[ility]." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79.

When evaluating a Rule 12 motion, a court considers the pleadings and any materials "attached or incorporated into the complaint." E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 448 (4th Cir. 2011); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(c); Thompson v. Greene, 427 F.3d 263, 268 (4th Cir. 2005); Fayetteville Inv'rs v. Commercial Builders, Inc., 936 F.2d 1462, 1465 (4th Cir. 1991). A court also may take judicial notice of public records such as court documents. See, e.g., Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007); Philips v. Pitt Cty. Mem'l Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009). In APA cases, however, a court need not wait for an administrative record to be compiled to decide a pure question of law. See, e.g., Animal Legal Def. Fund v. USDA, 789 F.3d 1206, 1224 n.13 (11th Cir. 2015). Rather, a court may decide a Rule 12(c)

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motion before discovery begins. See Teachers' Ret. Sys. of La. v. Hunter, 477 F.3d 162, 170 (4th Cir. 2007).


PETA alleges that the USDA's "policy, pattern, and practice of rubber-stamping" exhibitor license renewals and its renewal of five specific exhibitor licenses violates the APA. Compl. ¶¶ 168-79.2 Under the APA, courts must "hold unlawful and set aside agency action . . . found to be . . . arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law. . . [or] in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations, or short of statutory right." 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A), (C); see Defs. of Wildlife v. N.C. Dep't of Transp., 762 F.3d 374, 393 (4th Cir. 2014); Occidental Eng'g Co. v. INS, 753 F.2d 766, 769-70 (9th Cir. 1985); Ohio Valley Envtl. Coal. v. Hurst, 604 F. Supp. 2d 860, 879 (S.D. W. Va. 2009). Plaintiff has the burden of proof. Sierra Club v. Marita, 46 F.3d 606, 619 (7th Cir. 1995). In reviewing an agency action, the court must "consider whether the decision was based on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment." Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n, Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983) (quotation omitted); Fort Sumter Tours, Inc. v. Babbitt, 66 F.3d 1324, 1335 (4th Cir. 1995). The "inquiry into the facts is to be searching and careful," but "the ultimate standard of review is a narrow one. The court is not empowered to substitute its judgment for that of the agency." Babbitt, 66 F.3d at 1335 (quotation omitted).3 Courts, however, "must not rubber-stamp administrative decisions that they deem inconsistent with a statutory mandate or that frustrate the congressional policy underlying a statute." Nat'l Treasury Emps. Union v. Fed. Labor Relations

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Auth., 647 F.3d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 2011) (quotation and alteration omitted).

Although courts will not "rubber stamp" agency decisions, they give deference under Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-43 (1984), to certain statutory interpretations by agencies. When Congress delegates to an agency the authority to implement a statute, Congress implicitly delegates the authority to interpret it. Id. at 865-66. Chevron deference is a judicial "tool of statutory construction whereby courts are instructed to defer to the reasonable interpretations of expert agencies charged by Congress to fill any gap left, implicitly or explicitly, in the statutes they administer." Am. Online, Inc. v. AT & T Corp., 243 F.3d 812, 817 (4th Cir. 2001) (emphasis and quotation omitted). Chevron deference applies when (1) "the statutory language is silent or ambiguous with respect to the question posed" and (2) "the agency's answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute." Id. (quotation omitted).

PETA challenges the USDA's renewal of licenses for exhibitors and cites recent, documented violations of USDA regulations. To determine whether to apply Chevron deference, the court initially analyzes (1) the statutory authority granted to the USDA and (2) the USDA's interpretation of that statutory authority as manifested in its licensing and enforcement regulations. See Animal Legal Def. Fund, 789 F.3d at 1215-20.


In 1966, Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131-2159 ("AWA") to regulate the transportation, handling, and treatment of animals. Animal Welfare Act of 1966, Pub. L. No. 89-544, § 1, 80 Stat. 350, 350 (codified as amended at 7 U.S.C. § 2131). The AWA delegates to the USDA authority to regulate the humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation of animals by dealers, research facilities, and exhibitors. See 7 U.S.C. §§ 2140, 2143; see also id. § 2132(b) (defining "secretary"). Standards for humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation must include minimum requirements for "handling, housing, feeding, watering, sanitation, ventilation, shelter[,] . . . veterinary care, and separation by species." See id. § 2143(a)(2)(A).

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Carnivals, circuses, zoos, and other entities that "exhibit[] . . . animals . . . to...

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