dusky gopher frog

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Tuesday, December 04th, 2018

Written by: Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate, and Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow

Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news that you may want to know:

GIPSA as we know it is no more.  A rule was released November 29, 2018 by the USDA as part of the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to reorganize the agency.  Of particular note, the rule, which was published in the Federal Register, eliminates the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) as a “stand-alone agency.”  According to the GIPSA website (which is currently still available here), the agency “facilitate[d] the marketing of livestock, poultry, meat, cereals, oilseeds, and related agricultural products, and promote[d] fair and competitive trading practices for the overall benefit of consumers and American agriculture.”  The new administrative rule relocates GIPSA responsibilities to the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Administrator.  The change is not without controversy, as some farmers and agricultural groups argue that the protection of farmers through fair trading practices is antithetical to AMS, an agency responsible for marketing and promoting commodities.  The rule is available here.

Supreme Court considers when habitat is “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act.  The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of private landowners when it recently determined that protected "critical habitat" for an endangered species must be habitat in which the species could actually survive.  The Court's decision in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service et al  involved the dusky gopher frog, an endangered species that once lived throughout the coastal regions of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  Some of the habitat deemed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to be protected "critical habitat" for the frog was not actually occupied by the frog, and was instead being used for commercial timber production.  Weyerhaeuser and other affected landowners brought suit, claiming that the land couldn't be critical habitat because the frog could not survive there without significant human intervention, such as intensive tree planting.  The Court agreed that critical habitat "cannot include areas where the species could not currently survive."  Weyerhouser and other landowners had also challenged the agency's cost-benefit analysis for the critical habitat designation, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and stated that it had no power to review the FWS  analysis.   The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that federal courts can review an agency's economic impact analysis to determine whether the agency abused its discretion or was arbitrary and capricious.  With that guidance, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Fifth Circuit for further proceedings.  The Supreme Court’s decision is here.

A second judge finds that Trump’s WOTUS repeal was not procedurally sound.  Surprise, surprise, the WOTUS, or “waters of the United States” rule is in the news again.  In many previous blog posts, we have chronicled decisions on the ever-present WOTUS rule (search “WOTUS” in our search bar for our other posts).  Readers will recall that last February, the Trump administration published a new rule which was meant to repeal Obama’s WOTUS rule and replace it with the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS until a new definition could be developed.  Trump’s  rule was published on February 6, 2018, giving the administration until 2020 to come up with a new definition.  On August 16, 2018, a district court judge in South Carolina found that the Trump administration did not comply with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when it enacted the February 6 rule.  Similarly, on November 26, 2018, Judge John Coughenour in the Western District of Washington found that “by restricting the content of the comments solicited and considered [about the February rule], the Agencies deprived the public of a meaningful opportunity to comment on relevant and significant issues in violation of the APA’s notice and comment requirements.”  Rulemaking that violates the APA is invalid.  Judge Coughenour’s full decision is available here.

Both the South Carolina and the Washington state district court decisions are applicable to the entire country.  As a result, one might think that the Obama WOTUS rule should be in effect nationwide.  However, it is important to remember that in some states, there are injunctions against carrying out Obama’s WOTUS rule.  This means that it cannot be carried out in those states, and that the pre-2015 rule is actually effective in those states.  EPA has a map depicting which version of the rule applies where.  Uncertainty and WOTUS seem to be synonymous these days.  The only thing we know for certain is that the WOTUS saga is not over, meaning things are likely to change again in the future.

Ohio Treasurer pioneers paying taxes with Bitcoin.  Any business operating in Ohio may now pay certain taxes to the state of Ohio using Bitcoin, as recently announced by outgoing Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel.  The move makes Ohio the first state to accept Bitcoin as a form of tax payment.  The official press release expressed hopes that other cryptocurrencies could be used, but at this time only Bitcoin will be accepted.  Cryptocurrencies are said to be secure because they use blockchain, which is a digital register of transactions and information that is difficult to modify because changes to the register cannot be done by any single user.  The Treasurer’s Office has specified 23 different taxes that can be paid with cryptocurrencies, including: Commercial Activity Taxes (CAT), consumer’s use taxes, Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) taxes, Pass-Thru Entity (PTE) taxes, sales taxes, and more.  Paying with cryptocurrency is being accepted as an additional form of payment, as businesses can still pay with ACH credit, ACH debit, check, and money order.  However, the state will not keep the cryptocurrency, but instead will use a third party to cash out the Bitcoin and convert it into U.S. dollars before depositing them into the state’s account.  For more information, visit www.OhioCrypto.com or view the Treasurer’s Frequently Asked Questions page here.

Bayer prepares to bear with multiple jury trials over Monsanto’s glyphosate.  Bayer AG continues to battle more and more plaintiffs claiming that their health problems were caused as a direct result of Monsanto’s Roundup and glyphosate.  Another 600 plaintiffs have reportedly sued Bayer/Monsanto in the past two months since we last reported the number of lawsuits initiated with this argument.  Following the multi-billion dollar verdict in California state court late this summer, more jury trials are set to begin.  Over 620 cases have been filed in federal court, and the first case to reach a federal jury is now set for trial in San Francisco in February 2019.  Another California state court case has been fast-tracked to be heard in March 2019 because of the condition and age of the plaintiffs.  Yet another case is expected to be scheduled in Missouri state court for sometime later in 2019.  The cases largely depend upon a plaintiff’s ability to convince a jury that his or her cancer was more likely than not directly caused by glyphosate.  This question because controversial in 2015 when the United Nation’s World Health Organization released a report stating that the widely used herbicide is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”  However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a release in 2017 saying that its own findings demonstrate that glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic in humans.

Is this pumpkin pie made of pumpkin?  Thanksgiving dinner conversations often involve at least one debate for many families.  Prompted by recent coverage in news outlets like the Wall Street Journal, one of the topics this year was whether grandma’s pumpkin pie is made of pumpkin, and whether it should be.  At one end of the debate are those who say that pumpkin pie must be made from pumpkins, while others say that closely related squashes have a better flavor and consistency that make a pie taste the way a “pumpkin pie” should taste.  Central to this debate is the status of firm-shelled, golden-fleshed sweet squash, which currently makes up a large portion of the market for “canned pumpkin.”  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a long-standing policy saying that labeling the golden-fleshed, sweet squash as “pumpkin” complies with the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act.  Since 1938, the FDA has “consistently advised canners that we would not initiate regulatory action solely because of their using the designation “pumpkin” or “canned pumpkin” on labels for articles prepared from golden-fleshed, sweet squash, or mixtures of such squash with field pumpkins.”  The FDA explains that allowing current labeling practice does not seem to mislead or deceive consumers.  While the FDA declines to take a stand on the issue, families are free to continue to debate which ingredients make for the best pumpkin pie.

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