Friday, March 3, 2017
Farmers, Ranchers and Government Administrative Agencies
President Trump campaigned, in part, on a promise to reign-in regulatory agencies and eliminate unnecessary regulations. That’s a big deal to agriculture. A significant amount of governmental regulation of agricultural activities is conducted by and through administrative agencies that promulgate regulations and make decisions. Regulatory activity occurs outside both the legislatures and the courts, where most of conventional lawmaking occurs. Consequently, with much of administrative law, the administrative agency that writes the regulation at issue serves as judge and jury over disputed matters involving those same regulations. This raises fundamental questions of fairness. In exercising their rule-making power, agencies of government cannot go beyond the authority provided by the legislative body. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.
Today’s post takes a deeper look at administrative agencies and how farmers and ranchers can best deal with them.
Administrative Agency Basics
At the federal level, the Congress enacts basic enabling legislation, but leaves the particular administrative departments (such as the USDA) to implement and administer congressionally created programs. As a result, the enabling legislation tends to be vague with the administrative agencies (such as the USDA) needing to fill in the specific provisions by promulgating regulations. The procedures that administrative agencies must follow in promulgating rules and regulations, and the rights of individuals affected by administrative agency decisions are specified in the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). 5 U.S.C. §§ 500 et seq. The provisions of the APA constitute the operative law for many of the relationships between farmers and ranchers and the government.
Administrative Agency Procedure
Usually, a farmer or rancher's contact with an administrative agency is in the context of participation in an agency-administered program, or being cited for failure to comply with either a statutory or administrative rule. So, it’s helpful for farmers and ranchers to have a general understanding of how administrative agencies work and the legal effects of their decisions. In general, disputed matters involving administrative agencies must first be dealt with in accordance with the particular agency's own procedural rules before the matter can be addressed by a court of law. This is known as exhausting administrative remedies. 7 U.S.C. §6912(e). See also Johnston v. Patterson, No. 4:14-CV-210-BO, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 172224 (E.D. N.C. Dec. 12, 2014). About the only exception to the rule of exhaustion that I have seen is if a facial challenge is made to the regulation itself. See Gold Dollar Warehouse, Inc. v. Glickman, 211 F.3d 93 (4th Cir. 2000). Thus, participating carefully in administrative proceedings can be vitally important to a farmer or rancher, especially in terms of properly preserving a record for subsequent court review.
Going through the administrative process is critical because, typically, an appeal to a court of law is made only on the basis of the record generated in the administrative proceeding. Courts are limited in the extent to which they can substitute their judgment for that of an administrative agency regarding the facts of the dispute. Thus, it is critical to preserve all disputed factual and legal issues in the record of the administrative proceeding so that they can later be considered by a court. The exhaustion of administrative remedies, as a general rule, also requires that legal issues must be raised during the administrative process so as to be preserved for judicial review. If they are raised in the administrative process, then they will likely be precluded. Also, exhaustion is required as to each legal issue. See, e.g., Ballanger v. Johanns, 495 F.3d 866 (8th Cir. 2007).
What’s the Standard For Reviewing Agency Action?
Courts generally consider only whether the administrative agency acted rationally and within its statutory authority. Consequently, a particular farmer or rancher bears the burden of insuring that the record is adequate for the appeal of the issues involved before the matter leaves the administrative process. Otherwise, an appeal of an administrative agency's decision must be based solely on arguments that the agency acted arbitrarily, capriciously, beyond legal authority or that it abused its discretion.
In general, when dealing with administrative appeals from a federal agency such as the USDA, the court generally defers to the agency’s interpretation of its regulations as contained in the agency’s interpretive manuals. Prevailing in court on this type of a claim can be quite difficult. However, in Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576 (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that statutory interpretations made by governmental agencies in pronouncements that do not have the force of law, such as opinion letters, policy statements, agency manuals, and enforcement guidelines, are not entitled to such great deference. This is a significant case for the agricultural sector because the USDA often makes interpretations of the laws they administer in formats that do not have the force of law. Similarly, in Meister v. United States Department of Agriculture, 623 F.3d 363 (6th Cir. 2010), the court noted than an agency is not entitled to deference simply because it is a governmental agency. The case involved a claim that the U.S. Forest Service had failed to comply with its own regulations and a federal statute in developing its 2006 management plan for national forests in northern Michigan. The trial court granted the government’s motion for summary judgment, but the appellate court reversed. The appellate court noted that it was insufficient for the government to only identify the lands on which a particular activity (such as snowmobiling) could occur. Instead, the government had to identify the supply of lands on which participants in particular activities would experience a quality recreational experience. As a result, the issuance of the agency’s plan was arbitrary because the estimates of snowmobile and cross-country visitors to the forests were entirely arbitrary and there was no coordination with Michigan's recreational planning, and the agency did not minimize conflicts between off-road vehicle use and other uses and interests of the forests. The court specifically noted that agency deference was not automatic. Instead, the agency must apply the relevant statutory and regulatory authority.
On the deference issue, a change might be in the wind. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court again reiterated the principle of agency deference. Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997). However, the Court, in 2013 criticized the Court’s 1997 decision and suggested that it might be time to reconsider principles of agency deference. Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, 133 S. Ct. 1326 (2013).
The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) (5 U.S.C. §§504 (2008); 28 U.S.C. §2412(d)(2)(A)) provides that a party who prevails administratively against government action can recover fees and expenses if the administrative officer determines that the government’s position was not substantially justified. However, the USDA’s longstanding position is that the EAJA does not apply to administrative hearings before the USDA’s National Appeals Division (NAD) because NAD proceedings are not adversarial adjudications that are held “under” the APA. But, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit rejected the USDA’s position in 1997. Lane v. United States Department of Agriculture, 120 F.3d 106 (8th Cir. 1997). The Ninth Circuit ruled similarly in 2007. Aageson Grain and Cattle, et al. v. United States Department of Agriculture, 500 F.3d 1038 (9th Cir. 2007). The Seventh Circuit ruled likewise in 2008. Five Points Road Venture, et al. v. Johanns, 542 F.3d 1121 (7th Cir. 2008).
Dealing with administrative agencies is a reality for the typical farmer or rancher. Perhaps the change in Administration with last fall’s election will provide some common-sense reform to the impact they have on the business activity of farmers and ranchers. Time will tell.