Eleventh Circuit Finds USDA License Renewal Process Does Not Violate the Animal Welfare Act

In Animal Legal Defense Fund v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 789 F.3d 1206 (11th Cir. 2015), the Eleventh Circuit found that the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) interpretation of the Animal Welfare Act’s license renewal process was reasonable, and as such, their renewal of Seaquarium’s license was not unlawful, even if the USDA was aware of Animal Welfare Act violations committed by Seaquarium.

The case centers on a killer whale named Lolita, whose living conditions at the Miami Seaquarium allegedly violated the Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131-59 (2012); because of this, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) argued the USDA violated the Act by renewing Seaquarium’s license. The USDA license renewal process only requires applicants to complete three steps: (1) certify their compliance with applicable regulations; (2) pay a fee; and (3) provide a report on the quantity of animals in their possession. If these criteria are met, the USDA must renew the license. Animal Welfare Act violations are dealt with through a separate process, requiring the USDA to give notice and conduct a hearing before an administrative law judge.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the USDA. Conducting the two-step analysis articulated in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), the court first considered whether Congress had addressed the specific question at issue—whether the USDA may renew a facility’s license, knowing it is not compliant with the Animal Welfare Act. Examining the statute’s language and legislative history, as well as the statute as a whole, they concluded that Congress had not addressed the issue. The court also noted that automatically terminating a license for non-compliance with Animal Welfare Act standards, the interpretation advocated by the ALDF, would allow the USDA to avoid the lengthier hearing process, rendering its due process protections “meaningless.”

The court next addressed the ALDF’s argument that Chevron deference was inapplicable to the renewal process as it was “merely a litigation position.” The ALDF supported this contention by pointing to a letter from an USDA administrator, suggesting statutory compliance was a factor in license renewal. The court found this insufficient to undermine the purely administrative renewal process, which the court noted had been in operation since 1967. The ALDF also cited language in two regulations they argue is inconsistent with the USDA’s position that renewal does not require statutory compliance, but the court found these provisions did not make USDA’s “license renewal interpretation ‘plainly erroneous or inconsistent’” so as not to receive deference.

Lastly, the court considered the second question of the Chevron analysis: “whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute.” Chevron dictates agency regulations be “given controlling weight unless arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute” The court concluded that the USDA license renewal system was reasonable, calling it a “sensible policy choice that balances the competing demands of due process and animal welfare.” Specifically, they noted that given the limited resources of the USDA, it was reasonable to favor random searches over annual inspections, and to issue minor sanctions rather than revoking licenses for lesser violations.

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