Thursday, June 27, 2019
Administrative Agency Deference – Little Help For Ag From the Supreme Court
A significant amount of governmental regulation of agricultural activities is conducted by and through administrative agencies that promulgate regulations and make decisions. The rules for and scope of regulations is determined by unelected bureaucrats and often has the force of law. In addition, much of administrative law involves the administrative agency that developed the regulation at issue serving as judge and jury over disputed matters involving those same regulations. This raises fundamental questions of fairness.
In theory, governmental administrative agencies cannot exceed the authority provided by the legislative body. Ultimately, the courts serve as the check on the exercise of authority. But, how? Under what standard do the courts review administrative agency decisions? It’s an issue that was addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, and it didn’t turn out the way that many in agriculture had hoped.
Today’s post takes a deeper look at administrative agencies, how farmers and ranchers can best deal with them, and review of administrative agency determinations by the courts. The deference provided to administrative agency decisions – that’s the topic of today’s post.
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 occurs when 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. Christensen 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, it was believed that 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). This so-called “Auer deference” involves a court deferring (or give “controlling weight”) to agency interpretations of its own ambiguous regulations. Another type of deference, known as “Chevron deference” involves a court deferring to an agency interpretation of ambiguous statutes that the agency administers. Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). 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 amount of deference a court gives to agency interpretations of its own regulations is important to agriculture. For example, the USDA administers the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA). The PSA, bars packers (and others) from engaging in any “unfair, unjustly discriminatory, or deceptive practice.” 7 U.S.C. §192(a). The PSA also prohibits the making or giving of any “undue or unreasonable preference or advantage” to any person. 7 U.S.C. §192(b). The courts have construed this language to require harm to competition be shown to establish a violation. In late 2016, the USDA published an interim final rule removing the requirement to show harm to competition to establish a violation. But, the USDA later withdrew the rule. The withdrawal of the rule was challenged as arbitrary and capricious (the standard for overturning agency action). But, the Eighth Circuit denied the plaintiffs’ claims. Organization for Competitive Markets v. United States Department of Agriculture, 912 F.3d 455 (8th Cir. 2018). The court determined that the USDA, in abandoning the proposed rule, had provided a reasoned analysis based on principles that were “rational, neutral, and in accord with the agency’s proper understanding of its authority” – the USDA didn’t want to get sued. The case is an example of deference toward a governmental agency’s actions.
Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of deference again in Kisor v. Wilkie, No. 18-15, 2019 U.S. LEXIS ___ (U.S. Sup. Ct. Jun. 26, 2019). The facts of the case didn’t involve agriculture. That’s not the important part. What is important is that the Court again reaffirmed (5-4, thanks to Chief Justice Roberts) Auer deference. However, the Court did appear to place some limitations on Auer deference for future cases. I say “appear” because the Court created a new multi-part test for review of agency action that could prove difficult for lower courts to apply and relatively easy for administrative agencies to skirt. According to the Court, a court that reviews agency action is to review the regulatory language at issue to determine whether the regulation is ambiguous. If it is, the court is to then apply Auer deference in determining whether the agency reached a reasonable conclusion resulting from the agency’s careful consideration and expertise after giving affected parties reasonable notice of the agency’s interpretation. From agriculture’s perspective, it was hoped that the Court would jettison Auer deference. That would have been the approach of Justice Gorsuch who would have eliminated the binding agency deference of Auer.
So, the battle between agriculture and administrative agencies will continue on numerous fronts, and the arguments over the reasonableness of agency interpretations will continue with the courts largely deferring to agency determinations. While there might be a dent in Auer deference, it still is a very functional defense to agency action.
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. While ag didn’t get the clear victory it sought in Kisor, perhaps it’s a baby-step in the right direction. Only time will tell.