Judge Julie Rubin of the federal district court in Maryland yesterday issued a stunning victory today for Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic.
In her 28-page decision, Judge Rubin ruled that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) acted unlawfully by denying a petition for rulemaking to improve the standard for the psychological well-being of primates used in research. The original Petition was submitted by the Clinic’s clients Rise for Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Ed Butler, Executive Director of Rise for Animals (formerly the New England Anti-Vivisection Society), said: “I am so pleased to see the court rule in our favor and hold the U.S. Department of Agriculture accountable. The record shows USDA, through its Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS), failed primates used in laboratory research. This ruling is another step forward in our fight to end experiments that harm animals and provide no benefit to human health.”
Animal Legal Defense Fund Managing Attorney Christopher Berry added, “It is long overdue for the USDA to establish clear and enforceable standards that prioritize the psychological well-being of primates, rather than simply rubber stamp industry-created enrichment plans that do not adequately address the unique needs of these sensitive beings.”
The Harvard Clinic’s Benson Beidler further stated that, “The USDA’s lax standards pose serious threats to the welfare of primates in research facilities. The court’s ruling is an essential first step in making sure that primates in labs receive a level of care commensurate with their psychological need.”
In its ruling, the Court zeroed in on the fact that the agency’s principal explanation for denying the Petition to upgrade the 1991 standard was the claim that the USDA already inspects “all of the animals” every year to ensure each facility is operating in compliance with its “enrichment plan” for the psychological well-being of the primates. Pointing to an “internal” document obtained by the Clinic under the Freedom of Information Act, the Court noted this hasn’t been true since 2019, when without telling the public the USDA instituted a new inspection policy under which the agency actually prohibits its Inspectors from conducting full inspections of any research facility accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) – a private industry organization. Judge Rubin ruled that in light of this revelation, the agency’s decision to deny the rulemaking petition was unlawful not only because it “failed to provide a full explanation for its reasoning,” but because the agency based its decision “on facts known by it to be false.”
Judge Rubin also ruled that the denial of the Rulemaking Petition was unlawful because the agency failed to respond to any of the more than 10,000 comments it received – the vast majority of which urged the agency to grant the Petition. After noting that “the Agency has before it thousands of scientific community (and other) comments describing the suffering of … nonhuman primates in research facilities,” the Court decried the agency’s failure to respond to a single comment, stating that:
“Given the throngs of scientific community members’ interest in the Subject and considerable, apparently serious-minded contributions from the relevant scientific community, it strains credulity that none of the 10,137 comments warranted even the barest consideration.”
For these and other reasons, the Court held that the agency’s denial of the Petition was unlawful and ordered the case back to the agency to reconsider its decision.
This case against the USDA was the very first lawsuit filed by Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic in 2019. Several students worked on the case over the course of the last four years alongside Clinic Director Katherine Meyer. They are delighted with the outcome.
Beidler said: “The Court’s discussion of the background to the case is also a judicial shot across the bow, sending a clear signal to the USDA that it cannot shirk its obligations under the Animal Welfare Act. This portends well for future litigation ensuring agency fidelity to Congressional design.”
The Harvard Clinic’s Ashton Macfarlane added: “This was an incredible case to work on as a student, and it is so gratifying to see Judge Rubin recognize the serious and sustained deficiencies in the USDA’s conduct. The ruling is a major win for animals used in research and for sound administrative process, and I am honored to have played a role in the litigation through the Clinic.”