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People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals v. United States Department of Agriculture

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

June 28, 2017

PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
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

         Appeal 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)

         ARGUED:

          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.

         ON BRIEF:

          Jonathan D. Sasser, ELLIS & WINTERS LLP, Raleigh, North Carolina; Jenni R. James, PETA FOUNDATION, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

          John Stuart Bruce, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellees.

          Anna 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.

          Before WILKINSON, KEENAN, and THACKER, Circuit Judges.

         Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Thacker wrote the opinion, in which Judge Wilkinson and Judge Keenan joined.

          THACKER, Circuit Judge

         People 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.

         I.

         PETA sued the USDA and Tom Vilsack[1] 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.[2] Specifically, PETA highlights certain entities and individuals (collectively, "Exhibitors")[3] that obtained license renewals despite violating the AWA.[4]

         As part 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.

         The 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.

         II.

         A.

         We 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 ...


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