Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Court Tosses Animal-Rights Suit Against University of California
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Private citizens cannot sue for violations of a federal law governing how animals are used by research facilities, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled.
In an unpublished opinion, Div. Four Friday affirmed the dismissal of a suit by animal rights activists—including Pia Salk, a clinical psychologist whose uncle, Dr. Jonas Salk, invented the polio vaccine, and Dr. Lawrence Hansen, who teaches at UC San Diego Medical Center—against the University of California.
The plaintiffs alleged that UC routinely violates the federal Animal Welfare Act. They noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported many AWA violations since 1998 and that the university agreed to cease and desist from violating the law and to pay a $92,500 civil penalty in 2005, although it did not admit wrongdoing.
The suit was filed in July 2007 as a taxpayer action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, including the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee AWA compliance by the university.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Patrick Mahoney, who sustained the UC’s demurrer, ruled that although there is no specific preemption of private suits in the AWA, such actions are an obstacle to the federal policy of balancing animal welfare against the needs of researchers, and are thus implicitly preempted.
Justice Timothy Reardon, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed with the trial judge.
Citing legislative history, the justice wrote:
“The use of animals has been deemed instrumental in certain research to advance knowledge of cures and treatments for diseases and injuries afflicting humans and animals....Congress intended that the federal AWA ensure that those animals used in research facilities are humanely treated....However, Congress did not intend this goal to be achieved at the expense of progress in medical research...The AWA was intended both to protect animal welfare and to subordinate animal welfare to the continued independence of research scientists....In this scheme, ‘the research scientist still holds the key to the laboratory door.’...Thus, Congress balanced competing goals when enacting the AWA.”
Had Congress intended to allow private actions, Reardon said, it would not have enacted a comprehensive scheme of regulation by the USDA.
“When a federal agency uses its authority to achieve a somewhat delicate balance of statutory objectives, that balance can be skewed if states are also allowed to enforce that law....A state court taxpayer action could frustrate the objectives of the AWA by interfering with the authority of the Department and its inspectors to protect the welfare of animals in research facilities in a manner that does not deter scientific research. The Salk action would require the trial court to second-guess whether Department inspectors had met these competing goals in order to assess whether the Regents had violated the AWA.... This assessment is better left to the Department’s sole discretion.”
The case is Salk v. Regents of the University of California, A120289.
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