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District Court Judge Rules in Favor of HLS Animal Law Clinic in Suit Against USDA

A district court judge ruled in favor of the Animal Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School in a suit the clinic filed against the USDA.
A district court judge ruled in favor of the Animal Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School in a suit the clinic filed against the USDA. By Zadoc I.N. Gee
By Jo B. Lemann and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

Maryland District Court Judge Julie R. Rubin ruled in favor of the Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic in a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture in a March 23 decision.

The clinic — which filed the suit in November 2019 on behalf of animal rights advocacy groups Rise for Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund — challenged the USDA’s denial of a petition submitted by the plaintiffs. The petition called for the USDA to improve the standard for the treatment of primates involved in research, alleging that the agency had violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

Rubin sided with the plaintiffs in her opinion, concluding that in its decision to deny the petition, “the Agency did not consider evidence relevant to the subject matter it was tasked with deciding, that it failed to offer a plausible, reasoned explanation of how it considered relevant public comments, and/or that it failed to explain the basis for its conclusion that there were no relevant public comments.”

The USDA did not respond to a request for comment.

In a brief filed in support of a motion for summary judgment during the lawsuit, the USDA argued that its denial letter for the petition met the required standards because “all that is required by the USDA is to ‘adequately explain[] the facts and policy concerns it relied on and [whether] … those facts have some basis in the record.’”

Caitlin Foley, a senior attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said there are multiple ways the USDA could respond to Rubin’s decision.

“They’re going to have to come up with either a way to implement some of the things that we are requesting in the rulemaking or go back to the drawing board and try to figure out another way to achieve the same aims,” she said.

Foley added that the decision is unusual and that she sees this case as a “good win.”

“These usually aren’t really successful cases when you challenge an agency’s decision-making just because of the deference that’s given to an agency’s determination to deny a petition for rulemaking,” Foley said.

Rubin is also presiding over another lawsuit filed last April against the USDA by the Animal Law and Policy Clinic on behalf of the same plaintiffs. In this case, the clinic challenges a policy that it argues was “secretly implemented” by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — a subdivision of the USDA.

According to the complaint, APHIS “relies on third-party accreditation by the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care,” which the clinic alleges violates the Animal Welfare Act’s requirement that the agency must “conduct full annual inspections of research facilities.”

Katherine A. Meyer, director of the Animal Law and Policy Clinic, said in an interview that she felt hopeful about the pending case, adding that Rubin’s recent decision was “in very favorable language to our position.”

Meyer also said Rubin’s decision provided the clinic’s students with a valuable teaching moment, saying that it is “really great for my students to see that what I’ve been teaching them is correct.”

Ashton F. Macfarlane ’17, a third-year Law School student who works at the clinic, said that he could not have “imagined a better conclusion to this particular case.”

“It’s just incredibly rewarding to see so much of the language that we worked on and wordsmithed and thought about, hoped that maybe a judge would take seriously and to see not just a handful of our arguments, but almost every argument we made endorsed by the judge in this flamboyantly positive way is phenomenal,” he said.

Ed Butler, executive director of Rise for Animals, said he wishes the USDA will take action on the verdict in this case.

“We’re hoping that they will do the right thing by the animals and adopt a practice that will help improve the lives of these animals,” Butler said.

Butler said Rise for Animals will continue to fight not just for policy change at the USDA but to end all animal lab testing.

“Certainly, make no mistake, we would like all the animals out of these labs,” he said.

—Staff writer Jo B. Lemann can be reached at jo.lemann@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jo_Lemann.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @neilhshah15.

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