Tenth Circuit Declares No Remedy for Hemp Farmer Whose Federally Legal Plants Were Seized
The farmer – Francisco Serna – brought suit under the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the “2018 Farm Bill”) which legalized hemp across the country and included limitations on states’ ability to prohibit the transportation of certain hemp plants and products across state lines. However, the three-judge panel concluded that no provision within the law allows for a private right of action by an individual to challenge instances of perceived unlawful governmental interference.
Serna grew hemp in Texas and intended to bring several plants home with him from Colorado. But when he attempted to get the plants – consisting of “plant clones or rooted clippings” – through Denver’s airport, a police officer confiscated them under a departmental policy to seize plants containing any discernible level of THC. Even though Serna had documentation showing that the plants’ THC level was beneath the limit authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill – and therefore compliant under federal law – the officer took the plants anyway.
Serna’s Legal Proceedings
Serna sued the Denver Police Department and the confiscating officer under Section 10114(b) of the 2018 Farm Bill, which prohibits states from interfering with interstate transport of hemp and products that comply with the law. Serna asserted that because his plants were complaint, the defendants violated the provision. However, a federal magistrate judge granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, which the district court adopted. Serna then appealed to the Tenth Circuit.
The Tenth Circuit also held that no private right of action existed for Serna to employ. The court’s conclusion rests on the determination that Congress did not intend that hemp farmers, like Serna, should constitute a protected class under the 2018 Farm Bill. Without that status, they cannot sue. The court focused on the plain language of Section 10114(b), reasoning that it “makes no mention of [a] purported class of licensed [hemp] farmers” and merely provides that “no state…shall prohibit the transportation or shipment of hemp” across its borders. Thus, the provision pertains only to “the person regulated rather than the individuals protected,” which is fatal to the private right of action inquiry. The court compared Section 10114(b) with other federal statutes that do create private rights of action, such as Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which specifies that “[n]o person…shall…be subjected to discrimination.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000d.
The unfortunate result of this decision is that individuals who comply with the provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill during the course of their business operations cannot seek recourse from improper government meddling. As a result, the law is significantly less protective than anticipated. Rather than suing to protect their interests, entrepreneurs like Serna must instead depend upon other actors – perhaps state attorneys general – to pursue these types of cases. However, those non-stakeholders generally have less incentive to pursue lawsuits, particularly against peer law enforcement agencies, leaving hemp operators with no remedy to enforce their rights under the 2018 Farm Bill.
In a broader sense, the Serna case is a cautionary tale for those who expect federal descheduling of marijuana to resolve the regulatory complexities currently faced throughout the cannabis industry. If hemp operators working with products that are federally legal are unable to utilize the courts to challenge unlawful seizure of their products, then the effectiveness of federal legalization of cannabis may require an express private right of action.
Going forward, Serna has a limited period of time to request that the case be re-heard by the Tenth Circuit en banc (i.e., by the entire eleven-judge court) – otherwise, the three-judge panel’s opinion will remain the operative, binding outcome.
For assistance navigating hemp or cannabis regulations, please contact the ArentFox Schiff Cannabis Industry Group.
 The magistrate judge and the district judge differed on their bases for concluding that Serna could not sue under the 2018 Farm Bill. Specifically, the magistrate judge determined that Section 10114(b) neither created a private right of action nor a private remedy. The district judge, on the other hand, concluded that Congress did authorize a private right of action but no private remedy to enforce it was evident. This additional divergence is another example of how the 2018 Farm Bill is susceptible to conflicting interpretations, which will likely only increase going forward as other courts consider the issue.
- Related Industries