Siembra Finca Carmen, LLC v. Sec'y of Dep't of Agric. of P.R., Civil No. 18-1783 (CCC/BJM)

CourtU.S. District Court — District of Puerto Rico
Writing for the CourtBRUCE J. MCGIVERIN United States Magistrate Judge
Decision Date23 January 2020
Docket NumberCivil No. 18-1783 (CCC/BJM)


Civil No. 18-1783 (CCC/BJM)


January 23, 2020


Plaintiff Siembra Finca Carmen, LLC ("SFC") sued for declaratory and injunctive relief against the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of the Department of Agriculture of Puerto Rico ("PRDA") in their official capacities. Dkt. 1. SFC alleges that certain Puerto Rico laws are preempted by the Plant Protection Act ("PPA"), 7 U.S.C. § 7701 et seq. SFC moved for a preliminary injunction and filed a brief in support of declaratory judgment and permanent injunction. Dkts. 2, 17. Defendants opposed, and SFC replied. Dkts. 19, 23. This matter was referred to me for a report and recommendation. Dkt. 25. I held a status conference at which parties agreed the court can decide this case based on the pleadings and filings and without the need for an evidentiary hearing. Dkt. 30.

For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that preliminary and permanent injunctive relief be GRANTED.


SFC is a nursery engaged in the development of coffee plants in Puerto Rico. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, causing significant damage to the island's coffee plants. In response, SFC made plans to import coffee seeds from various

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foreign countries into Puerto Rico to begin cultivating new coffee plants. To that end, SFC asked the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service ("APHIS"), an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture ("USDA"), for a permit that would authorize the importation of 600 kilograms of coffee seeds. APHIS issued SFC a Controlled Import Permit on March 13, 2018, authorizing six shipments of 100 kilograms of coffee seeds into Puerto Rico. See Dkt. 1-3 at 1. These seeds would come from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. Id.

The permit allowed SFC to receive the coffee seeds and cultivate them inside an approved quarantine greenhouse facility in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. See id. at 4. The seeds could be germinated inside the facility under specific conditions and "routinely monitored for indications of plant pests." Id. at 5. Before the plants could be released for planting in the field, SFC would need to cultivate them inside the quarantine facility for a minimum of seven months. Id. at 6. Ultimately, APHIS would determine whether the plants could be released into the environment. Id. The State Plant Health Director for Puerto Rico, an APHIS employee,2 would need to inspect the site and seedlings, consult with a designated plant pathologist, and approve the release of the coffee plants in a written statement. Id. APHIS could also impose additional requirements prior to approving the plants' release. See id.

In addition to seeking a permit from APHIS, SFC corresponded with PRDA regarding a "Special Permit for the importation of seeds." Dkt. 1-7 at 1. As evidenced by that correspondence, PRDA also required SFC to obtain a permit prior to importing coffee seeds. See Dkt. 1-9 at 1. Under Puerto Rico law, such a permit is issued where an applicant

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meets various requirements, including "any other that the Secretary of Agriculture deems pertinent." Id. at 2. Before it would issue a permit, PRDA asked SFC to submit a "planting plan (date of planting and dates of harvesting of the material originating from said seed) after its release for planting in farms of Puerto Rico"; "a map of the farm or the farms in Puerto Rico that includes the exact location where said material will be planted"; and details regarding "any monitoring plan over the material after it is planted in the farms of Puerto Rico" or regarding "losses or damages that are associated to [sic] the material in the farms of Puerto Rico." Id. On July 30, 2018, SFC informed PRDA that it could not provide the requested information because it had not yet determined where the coffee plants would go in the event APHIS permitted their release from quarantine. Id. at 1. Dkt. 1-10.

The first shipment of seeds arrived to Puerto Rico on August 1, 2018, and SFC began cultivating those seeds in its quarantine facility. See Dkt. 1-5. On August 18, PRDA informed SFC that genetic material had arrived to Puerto Rico without PRDA's required permit and that said material had been "detained in [SFC's] facilities." Dkt. 1-11 at 2. PRDA reiterated that it needed additional information to process a special permit for SFC, including information on whether the nursery had "any experimental protocol with the farmers that acquire the genetic material," whether the project had "commercial purposes," and whether SFC would "assume responsibility over the genetic material no [sic] validated after its distribution to third parties." Id.

Matters between SFC and PRDA then escalated. Counsel for SFC's parent company, Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters, informed PRDA that it believed the agency's actions were preempted by federal law and an abuse of power. See Dkt. 1-12. PRDA imposed a $5,000 fine on SFC, concluding that SFC had imported 280 kilograms of coffee seeds from Nicaragua without the required PRDA permit. Dkt. 1-13 at 1-2. In the complaint imposing that fine, PRDA explained as follows: "The Department of Agriculture of Puerto Rico regulates the entry into the country of green coffee seeds, plants or products, in order to avoid the entry of plague or disease that can accompany the same." Dkt. 1-13

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at 3. Thus, it is illegal to introduce coffee seeds into Puerto Rico without a special permit issued by the Secretary. Id. Further, anyone seeking to introduce vegetable plants and materials for propagation into Puerto Rico must obtain a PRDA permit, and individuals seeking to introduce plants that could host plague or disease must also comply with certain notification and inspection requirements. Id. at 4-5. PRDA found SFC in violation of these laws. Id. at 5-6. SFC then filed suit in the federal district court, arguing that the Puerto Rico laws regulating the import of plants and coffee seeds into the island are preempted by federal law. Dkt. 1.


SFC seeks declaratory and injunctive relief on the basis that the PPA expressly preempts PRDA's authority to regulate the import of seeds in order to control plague or disease. PRDA responds that no such relief is merited because its actions were authorized by Puerto Rico law, which has not been preempted.

Preliminary Injunctive Relief

"[I]f an individual claims federal law immunizes him from state regulation, the court may issue an injunction upon finding the state regulatory actions preempted." Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Ctr., Inc., 575 U.S. 320, 326 (2015) (citing Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 155-156 (1908)). A plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must establish "(1) a likelihood of success on the merits, (2) a likelihood of irreparable harm absent interim relief, (3) a balance of equities in the plaintiff's favor, and (4) service of the public interest." Arborjet, Inc. v. Rainbow Treecare Sci. Advancements, Inc., 794 F.3d 168, 171 (1st Cir. 2015) (citations omitted). A preliminary injunction "is an extraordinary and drastic remedy, one that should not be granted unless the movant, by a clear showing, carries the burden of persuasion." Mazurek v. Armstrong, 520 U.S. 968, 972 (1997) (per curiam) (emphasis in original) (quoting 11A C. Wright, A. Miller, & M. Kane, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 2948 (2d ed. 1995) [hereinafter "Wright & Miller").

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A. Success on the Merits

Under the Supremacy Clause, U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2, any Puerto Rico law that "interferes with or is contrary to federal law" is void. Antilles Cement Corp. v. Fortuño, 670 F.3d 310, 323 (1st Cir. 2012) (quoting Free v. Bland, 369 U.S. 663, 666 (1962)). Federal law is presumed not to have preemptive effect, and that presumption is overcome "only in the face of clear and contrary congressional intent." Id. (citing City of Columbus v. Ours Garage and Wrecker Serv., Inc., 536 U.S. 424, 432 (2002)). In all cases, "[t]he purpose of Congress is the ultimate touchstone." Retail Clerks Int'l Ass'n, Local 1625, AFL-CIO v. Schermerhorn, 375 U.S. 96, 103 (1963). "Congress may indicate pre-emptive intent through a statute's express language," or Congress can imply a statute's preemptive intent "through its structure and purpose." Altria Grp., Inc. v. Good, 555 U.S. 70, 76 (2008). Preemption can thus occur expressly or where state law "stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress," Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67 (1941), where "compliance with both federal and state regulations is a physical impossibility," Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul, 373 U.S. 132, 142-43 (1963), or where the federal regulatory scheme is "so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it." Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp, 331 U.S. 218, 230 (1947).

The PPA aims to protect "the agriculture, environment, and economy of the United States" from harms caused by plant pests and noxious weeds, while facilitating the entry of safe plants, which are "vital to the United State's [sic] economy." 7 U.S.C. § 7701(1), (5). To this end, the PPA allows USDA to "prohibit or restrict the importation, entry, exportation, or movement in interstate commerce of any plant" where the agency determines that such restriction is necessary to control plant pests or noxious weeds. Id. § 7712(a). USDA has delegated this authority to APHIS. Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, 561 U.S. 139, 144 (2010) (citing 7 CFR §§ 2.22(a), 2.80(a)(36)). In turn, APHIS has restricted the importation of coffee seeds for planting, requiring that such seeds only

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be imported where authorized by a "controlled import permit." See 7 C.F.R. § 319.37-4(a), (f); 7 CFR § 319.73-2(b);...

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