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Supreme Court of the United States

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By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Friday, June 30th, 2023

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. 

 

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