Happy last day of June! We close out the month with another Ag Law Harvest, which brings you two interesting court cases, one about an Ohio man asserting his right to give away free gravel, and another which could decide the constitutionality of “Ag-Gag” laws once and for all. We also provide a few federal policy updates and announcements.
Ohio Department of Agriculture Prohibited from Fining a Landowner for Charging to Load Free Gravel. In May of 2020, Paul Gross began selling gravel and topsoil (collectively “gravel”) that he had accumulated from excavating a pond on his property. Gross charged $5 per ton of gravel, which was weighed at a scale three miles from his property. After receiving a complaint of the gravel sales, the Madison County Auditor sent a Weights and Measures Inspector to investigate Gross’s gravel sales. The Inspector informed Gross that the gravel sales violated Ohio Administrative Code 901:6-7-03(BB) (the “Rule”) because the gravel was not being weighed at the loading site. Under the Rule, “[s]and, rock, gravel, stone, paving stone, and similar materials kept, offered, or exposed for sale in bulk must be sold . . . by cubic meter or cubic yard or by weight.” As explained by the Inspector, Gross’s problem was that he was selling gravel by inaccurate weight measurements because the trucks hauling the gravel lose fuel weight when traveling the three miles to the scale.
Instead of installing scales on his property, Gross decided to start giving away the gravel for free. However, Gross did charge a flat rate fee of $50 to any customer that requested Gross’s help in loading the gravel. According to Gross, this $50 fee was to cover the cost of his equipment, employees, and other resources used to help customers load the gravel. Unsatisfied with the structure of this transaction, the Ohio Department of Agriculture (“ODA”) decided to investigate further and eventually determined that even though Gross was giving away the gravel for free, the flat fee for Gross’s services represented a commercial sale of the gravel and, therefore, Gross was in continued violation of the Rule.
For the alleged violation, the ODA intended to impose a $500 civil penalty on Gross, who requested an administrative hearing. The hearing officer recommended imposing the penalty and the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas agreed. Gross appealed the decision to the Tenth District Court of Appeals, which found that Gross was not in violation of the Rule.
The Tenth District reasoned that customers were paying for the service of moving the gravel, not for the gravel itself. The court explained that the purpose of the Rule is to protect consumers by ensuring transparent pricing of materials like gravel. Since Gross was not in the business of selling gravel and the transaction was primarily for services, the court concluded that the ODA’s fine was impermissible.
North Carolina Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Review “Ag-Gag Law.” In 2015, the North Carolina Legislature passed the North Carolina Property Protection Act, allowing employers to sue any employee who “without authorization records images or sound occurring within” nonpublic areas of the employer’s property “and uses the recording to breach the [employee’s] duty of loyalty to the employer.” After the act’s passage several food-safety and animal-welfare groups, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”), challenged the Property Protection Act in an effort to prevent North Carolina from enforcing the law.
A federal district court in North Carolina struck down the law, finding it to be a content-based restriction on speech in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling also reasoning that the law’s broad prohibitions restrict speech in a manner inconsistent with the First Amendment. Now, the North Carolina Attorney General, Josh Stein, has petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”), asking the Court to reverse the 4th Circuit’s decision. If SCOTUS decides to hear the case, the justices will be tasked with determining “[w]hether the First Amendment prohibits applying state tort law against double-agent employees who gather information, including by secretly recording, in the nonpublic areas of an employer’s property and who use that information to breach their duty of loyalty to the employer.”
We have reported on several Ag-Gag laws and the court challenges that have followed. If SCOTUS decides to take up the case, we may finally have a definitive answer as to whether Ag-Gag laws are constitutional or not.
Lab-grown Chicken Given the Green Light by the USDA. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) Food Safety and Inspection Service granted its first approvals to produce and sell lab-grown chicken to consumers. Upside Foods and Good Meat, the two entities given the green light by the USDA, plan on initially providing their “cell-cultivated” or “cultured” chicken to patrons of restaurants in the San Francisco and Washington D.C. areas. However, the timeline for such products showing up in your local grocery store has yet to be determined.
USDA Suspends Livestock Risk Protection 60-Day Ownership Requirement. The USDA’s Risk Management Agency issued a bulletin suspending the 60-day ownership requirement for the Livestock Risk Protection (“LRP”) program. Normally under the LRP, covered livestock must be owned by the producer within the last 60 days of the specified coverage endorsement period for coverage to apply. According to the bulletin, “[d]ue to the continuing severe drought conditions impacting many parts of the nation, producers are struggling to find adequate supplies of feed or forage, causing them to market their livestock sooner than anticipated.” In response, the USDA is allowing producers to apply to waive the 60-day ownership requirement, subject to verification of proof of ownership of the livestock. The USDA hopes this waiver will allow producers to market their livestock as necessary while dealing with the current drought effects. Producers will be able to apply for the waiver until December 31, 2024.
USDA Announces Tool to Help Small Businesses and Individuals Identify Contracting Opportunities. Earlier this month, the USDA announced a new tool “to assist industry and small disadvantaged entities in identifying potential opportunities for selling their products and services to USDA.” USDA’s Procurement Forecast tool lists potential contracting or subcontracting opportunities with the USDA. Until now, businesses could only access procurement opportunities through the federal-wide System for Award Management (“SAM”). The USDA hopes the Procurement Forecast tool will provide greater transparency and maximize opportunity for small and underserved businesses.
The first two weeks of the U.S. Supreme Court’s new term are important ones for agriculture. The Court will hear arguments in two critical cases: the “Sackett” wetlands case and a challenge to California’s animal welfare law, Proposition 12. The new term for the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) begins October 3, with the Sackett case up as the Court’s first hearing. The Court will hear the Proposition 12 case on October 11. We focus this article on the Sackett case and will preview the Proposition 12 case next week.
The Sackett wetlands case, round 1. The Sacketts may have become household names across the country in 2012, after the U.S. EPA prohibited Michael and Chantell Sackett from building a home on land they had purchased near Priest Lake, Idaho. The Sacketts had filled wetlands on the property in preparation for construction, but the EPA issued a compliance order prohibiting further filling or construction and requiring restoration of the site. The agency claimed authority to do so by declaring the wetlands to be “navigable waters of the United States” subject to the Clean Water Act (CWA). The Sacketts challenged the order and EPA’s authority over their land. However, lower federal courts declined to hear the case, believing the compliance order was not yet a “final agency action” that could be reviewed since the EPA had not yet enforced the order. The case proceeded to its first appearance before SCOTUS, where the Court held that the compliance order was indeed a final agency action that could be reviewed in court.
Back in court. The Sackett case returned to the lower courts for determining whether the EPA had authority over the Sackett property. The issue became a common one for CWA cases: whether the Sackett wetlands were “waters of the United States” that fall under the CWA and the EPA’s authority. The challenge of that issue, however, is determining which “test” to apply to the situation. A court establishes a “test” as a framework for analyzing an issue. Over the years, courts have struggled to agree on a clear test for determining when a wetland qualifies as “waters of the United States” that are subject to the CWA. At this time, there are two competing tests developed by the Supreme Court: the “significant nexus” test advocated by Justice Kennedy and the “continuous surface connection” test proposed by Justice Scalia. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have also attempted to clarify the proper test by way of agency rulemaking, but those efforts are now tied up in litigation and revised rulemaking.
The Ninth Circuit decision. The Sacketts are now before SCOTUS for a second time because they believe the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did not use the proper test in their case. The appellate court applied the “significant nexus test,” which states that wetlands are “waters of the United States” when there is a “significant nexus” between the wetlands and navigable waters, as determined when the wetlands “either alone or in combination with the similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other cover waters more readily understood as ‘navigable.’” The significant nexus test represents a broader definition and would subject more wetlands to EPA authority than Justice Scalia’s test. Many argue that it’s also unclear and creates uncertainty for landowners.
The SCOTUS appeal. The question the Sacketts now raise with SCOTUS is whether the significant nexus test applied by the Ninth Circuit was the proper test to use for its wetland determination. The Sacketts argue that it isn’t. They also urge SCOTUS to adopt an alternative test akin to Justice Scalia’s test in Rapanos v. U.S., which states that wetlands should have a “continuous surface connection” to “relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water” to be deemed “waters of the U.S.” The Scalia test, by requiring a continuous surface connection between wetlands and “permanent” waters, would narrow the extent of wetlands that are subject to the Clean Water Act.
Predictions. The Supreme Court surprised many when it announced its decision to once again review the Sackett case. Given the changes to the composition of the Court since it heard the Rapanos case back in 2006, a logical prediction is that the Court will not only set aside the Ninth Circuit’s application of the significant nexus test, but will also adopt Justice Scalia’s test as the proper way to determine when a wetland is a “water of the United States” subject to EPA jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. We won’t know whether those predictions will become truth until sometime in 2023, when we can expect another Sackett decision from the Court.
Listen to the arguments in Sackett v EPA at 10:00 am on Monday, October 3 on the SCOTUS website at https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/live.aspx or listen to the arguments on sites like https://www.c-span.org/supremeCourt/.