March 19, 2021

Law Student Ellie Nicoletta Argues in Federal Court

Ellie Nicoletta ’21 argued in front of the federal district court on March 17, 2021, opposing the USDA’s motion to dismiss a case regarding the deregulation of pig slaughterhouses.

On March 17, 2021, Lewis & Clark Law School student Ellie Nicoletta ’21 had the rare opportunity to argue in federal district court through the Center for Animal Law Studies Animal Law Litigation Clinic (ALLC)—the world’s only law school clinic dedicated to advancing legal protections for farmed animals. Nicoletta argued in opposition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed in December of 2019 by the ALLC on behalf of seven animal and environmental protection groups—Farm Sanctuary, Animal Equality, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Outlook, the Center for Biological Diversity, Mercy For Animals, and North Carolina Farmed Animal Save—challenging the USDA’s deregulation of pig slaughter.

The deregulation—which the USDA estimates will increase the number of pigs slaughtered in the US by about 11.5 million annually—exposes pigs to greater suffering and flouts federal humane slaughter, meat inspection, and environmental protection laws.

The USDA moved to dismiss the lawsuit on standing grounds. Plaintiffs opposed the motion, detailing why they have standing both in their own right, because their organizational missions and activities are impaired by the deregulation, and on behalf of their members, including individuals who consume pork and face greater exposure to potentially fatal and antibiotic-resistant foodborne illnesses as a result of the deregulation, and individuals who live and recreate near the mega-slaughterhouses that will take advantage of the deregulation to increase the number of pigs they slaughter and thus their toxic pollution.

“Pig slaughter deregulation harms animals, workers, and the public. The only ones benefiting here are the owners of slaughterhouse conglomerates,” says student attorney Ellie Nicoletta. Reflecting on her experience, she noted “As a student, being able to participate in this litigation and argue in federal court has been incredible. I have worked with amazing attorneys and professors in animal law. Most importantly, I have been able to practice and test my skills as an advocate for animals and their humane treatment.”

In the argument, Nicoletta drew the court’s attention to some of the 15 sworn statements that plaintiffs filed with the court detailing the myriad harms that will flow from the deregulation, including one from a veteran USDA inspector detailing numerous increased risks to pigs and public health that she personally witnessed as a result of faster line speeds. The inspector’s documented observations include workers raising paddles over their heads to strike pigs and an increase in pig carcasses with scalding-tank water in their lungs—an indication that the animals may have still been breathing when dropped in the tank. She also witnessed more fecal contamination of pig carcasses as well as toenails, hair, and abscesses entering the food supply.

Professor Delcianna Winders, director of the ALLC said, “We hope that the court will recognize deregulation’s myriad harms so that we can move on to the merits quickly and ensure that pigs raised for food—who already suffer tremendously at every point of their short lives, from having their teeth, tails, and testicles cut off without any painkillers, to being crammed into overcrowded trucks without temperature control—are at least afforded minimum legal protections at slaughter.”

Last month another ALLC student, Brittany Rowe, argued in federal court in a separate lawsuit challenging the USDA’s failure to protect pigs who are too sick or injured to stand or walk.

The Court took the motions to dismiss in both cases under advisement.

In mid-March, legislation that would halt implementation of the deregulatory rule was introduced in both the House and the Senate.