A federal judge refused to drop a lawsuit filed on behalf of three animal rights groups against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its administrators.

The lawsuit alleged the agency neglected to properly act to prevent the spread avian influenza.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Mercy for Animals and Farm Sanctuary filed the lawsuit in the United States District Court, Central District of California, in April 2020, with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Veterinary Services (VS) and administrators Kevin Shea, Dr. Burke Healy and Dr. Mark Davidson as defendants.

The lawsuit stems from the plaintiff’s grievances against USDA, after HSUS proposed to the federal agency a plan in which USDA would incentivize producers who “give animals room to move naturally,” a HSUS spokesperson stated in an email.

HSUS alleged that by giving chickens more space, it would reduce the risk of the spread of avian influenza. HSUS made its proposal to USDA following the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak of 2014 and 2015.

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But the agency “refused to even consider this plan,” HSUS said, so it filed the lawsuit and was joined by the other two plaintiff groups. The plaintiffs allege that in refusing to consider their proposal, USDA was in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Animal Health Protection Act (AHPA). The plaintiffs further alleged that under existing APHIS rules, organic farmers and other bird owners situated near “large industrial poultry operations,” veterinarians participating in depopulation procedures and other individuals involved in farm animal rescue and sanctuary work were put in perilous positions.

According to a court document, the defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit “for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that none of the plaintiffs have pled facts sufficient to show injury-in-fact, causation and redressability, and therefore they lack standing.”

The presiding judge rejected USDA’s challenge on March 26.

U.S. District Court Judge Andre Birotte Jr. stated in the court filing: “None of defendants’ arguments against the injury-in-fact element of standing has merit. First, defendants characterize the plaintiffs’ concern about the possibility of another HPAI outbreak as the injury, and say it is too speculative and hypothetical to count towards standing, which requires an ‘imminent’ injury. This misstates the injury. The injury here is the procedural injury of APHIS’ alleged failure to comply with NEPA’s requirements for preparing an (Environmental Impact Statement). That injury has already occurred.”