PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS, Plaintiff - Appellant,
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE; SONNY PERDUE, in his official capacity as Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture, Defendants - Appellees. THE FUND FOR ANIMALS; THE HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE UNITED STATES; DELCIANNA J. WINDERS, Academic Fellow, Animal Law & Policy Program, Harvard Law School, Amici Supporting Appellant.
Argued: May 10, 2017
from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of North Carolina, at Raleigh. James C. Dever III,
Chief District Judge. (5:15-cv-00429-D)
Katherine Anne Meyer, MEYER GLITZENSTEIN & EUBANKS, LLP,
Washington, D.C., for Appellant.
Matthew Fesak, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh,
North Carolina, for Appellees.
Jonathan D. Sasser, ELLIS & WINTERS LLP, Raleigh, North
Carolina; Jenni R. James, PETA FOUNDATION, Washington, D.C.,
Stuart Bruce, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED
STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellees.
Frostic, Laura Friend, Laura Fox, Kim Ockene, THE HUMANE
SOCIETY OF THE UNITED STATES, Washington, D.C., for Amici The
Humane Society of the United States and The Fund for Animals.
John Vail, JOHN VAIL LAW PLLC, Washington, D.C., for Amicus
Delcianna J. Winders.
WILKINSON, KEENAN, and THACKER, Circuit Judges.
by published opinion. Judge Thacker wrote the opinion, in
which Judge Wilkinson and Judge Keenan joined.
THACKER, Circuit Judge
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ("PETA")
challenges the license renewal process for animal exhibitors
promulgated by the United States Department of Agriculture
("USDA"), through which the USDA may renew such
license despite a licensee's noncompliance with the
Animal Welfare Act ("AWA" or "the Act").
PETA argues that such renewal process undermines a key
purpose of the Act, that is, ensuring the humane treatment of
animals. The district court granted the USDA's Rule 12(c)
motion for judgment on the pleadings, concluding that the
USDA's interpretation was owed deference under
Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense
Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). Because the AWA does
not directly address license renewal but does expressly
authorize the USDA to promulgate and implement its own
renewal standards, we affirm.
sued the USDA and Tom Vilsack in his official capacity as Secretary of
the USDA under the Administrative Procedure Act
("APA"). PETA alleges that the USDA has a
"policy, pattern, and practice of rubber-stamping . . .
license renewal applications" of applicants that the
USDA cites for violating the AWA, some only days before
renewing their licenses. J.A. 5. Specifically, PETA highlights certain
entities and individuals (collectively,
"Exhibitors") that obtained license renewals despite
violating the AWA.
of its mission to protect animals from "abuse, neglect,
and cruelty, " PETA asserts that it has spent resources
(1) sending its members to document animal conditions at
Exhibitors' facilities; (2) submitting violation reports
to the USDA; and (3) disseminating information about the
violations through its website, publications, and other
media. J.A. 9. PETA further asserts that by renewing
Exhibitors' licenses despite their alleged repeated
violations, the USDA "causes PETA to spend additional
resources monitoring, documenting, and addressing the
unlawful licensing decision and the inhumane conditions at
the applicants' facilities." Id. As a
result, PETA seeks (1) a declaratory judgment that the
USDA's renewal policy -- both facially and as applied to
Exhibitors -- violates the APA; (2) a permanent injunction
enjoining the USDA from implementing their renewal process;
(3) nullification of the Exhibitors' license renewals;
and (4) reasonable attorney's fees and costs. See
id. at 40.
district court granted the USDA's motion for judgment on
the pleadings. See People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals, Inc. v. United States Dep't of Agric., 194
F.Supp.3d 404, 407 (E.D. N.C. 2016). In doing so, the
district court first determined that the AWA only addressed
license issuance, not license renewal, which is at issue
here. See id. at 413. The district court next
concluded that the USDA's renewal process was based on a
permissible construction of the AWA because the AWA itself
authorized the USDA to regulate licensing, including renewal.
See id. at 414-15. PETA timely appealed.
review de novo the district court's ruling on a motion
for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c), see
Butler v. United States, 702 F.3d 749, 751-52 (4th Cir.
2012), applying the standard for a motion under Rule 12(b)(6)
-- that is, such a motion should "only be granted if,
after accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the
plaintiff's complaint as true and drawing all reasonable
factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's
favor, it appears certain that the plaintiff cannot prove any