CHICAGO (Cook County Record) — A Hancock County, Ind., woman, whose farm family sued after the U.S. Department of Agriculture denied them benefits over removal of nine trees from their property decades ago, scored a victory in the long-running wetlands case with a federal appeals court's recent scathing ruling.
In its 47-page decision issued Aug. 8, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals entered a judgment in favor of Rita Boucher after finding the USDA's actions in the matter to have been "arbitrary and capricious."
"The USDA repeatedly failed to follow applicable law and agency standards," the appeals court said in its ruling. "It disregarded compelling evidence showing that the acreage in question never qualified as wetlands that could have been converted illegally into croplands."
U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Diane P. Wood | law.uchicago.edu
The agency "has kept shifting its explanations" over how for years it treated acreage owned by Boucher and her late husband, David Boucher, as if it were converted wetlands, the decision said, adding: "The USDA's treatment of the Bouchers' acreage as converted wetlands easily qualifies as arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion."
The appeals court's decision reversed and remanded an earlier ruling by an Indianapolis federal district court judge, who had affirmed the USDA's "final determination." The appeals judges ordered the lower court to "enter judgment granting appropriate relief to plaintiff Rita Boucher."
Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Diane P. Wood wrote the decision. Judges Joel M. Flaum and David R. Hamilton concurred.
The case stemmed from David Boucher's decision in the 1990s to cut down trees on his property, which the USDA determined had been done in an attempt to illegally convert federally protected wetlands into crop land, according to background portions of the appeals court's decision. The USDA used that determination to strip the Bouchers of federal benefits for which their farm would have been eligible.
"For almost two decades, the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] has disagreed, first with Mr. Boucher and now his widow, plaintiff Rita Boucher, about whether that modest tree removal converted several acres of wetlands into croplands, rendering the Bouchers' entire farm ineligible for USDA benefits that would otherwise be available," Wood wrote.