Monday, 16 August 2010 12:09

The Verdict

Written by  Kenneth C. Sandoe, Attorney-at-Law
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Disclaimer - This article is intended as general discussion and information on the topic covered, and is not to be construed as rendering legal advice. If legal advice is needed, you should contact an attorney. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in any manner without prior written permission of the author.

In the previous issue of The Draft Horse Journal I wrote about Jim and Chris Johnsons’ struggle with the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine. The Johnsons are teeth floaters and Jim Johnson received a letter from the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine directing him to cease and desist equine teeth floating because it was considered to be practicing veterinary medicine. The Johnsons are not veterinarians or equine dentists and have taken no specialized courses in equine dentistry. The Johnsons learned their trade by hands-on experience through years of practice and floating the teeth of thousands of horses.

The Johnsons argued that they should be free from unnecessary and irrational occupational licensing laws and challenged the Board’s authority to regulate their trade under the United States and Minnesota State Constitution. Moreover, the Johnsons argued that when interests, such as the Board of Veterinary Medicine, captures a State’s licensing board, competition is stifled, prices are raised and consumer choices are reduced.

The Minnesota case has gone to trial and the verdict is in. Unfortunately for the Johnsons, the Judge did not see it their way and held that the State of Minnesota had authority to regulate the teeth floating industry in the State. The Judge first reviewed the Minnesota Law in question which allowed for non-veterinarians to provide equine teeth floating services upon submitting to the Board of Veterinary Medicine the following:

1.    Proof of current certification from the International Association of Equine Dentistry or other professional equine dentistry association as determined by the Board; and

2.    A written statement signed by a supervising veterinarian experienced in large animal medicine that the applicant will be under direct or indirect supervision of the veterinarian when floating equine teeth. (For purposes of the law, indirect supervision means a veterinarian is available by telephone or some other form of immediate communication.)

One of the Johnsons’ strongest arguments was that the State of Minnesota did not have a rational reason for singling out teeth floating to be licensed when there were far more serious procedures being done by non-licensed individuals such as dehorning, castration, farrier work, etc.

The Judge attempted to deal with this argument by distinguishing equine teeth floating from castration, dehorning and tail docking of cattle, swine, sheep and goats by establishing a chart and noting the differences as he saw them. The chart used by the Judge to justify the differences is set forth below:

Having made the distinctions as set forth in the above charts, the Judge then reviewed the case under both the Minnesota and United States Constitutions. Plaintiffs’ claim under the Minnesota Constitution is subject to the “heightened rational basis test.” Three elements must be present to meet Minnesota’s heightened rational basis test, the three elements are as follows:

1. The classification distinction must be genuine and substantial with a natural and reasonable basis justifying the legislation;

2. The classification must be genuine or relevant to the purpose of the law; and

3. The Statute’s purpose must be one that the State can legitimately attempt to achieve.

Under Minnesota’s heightened rational basis test the State is authorized to exercise its police power to protect public health, safety or welfare through the regulation of occupations that require specialized training or skill and the public will benefit from assurance of initial or continuing occupational ability. The trial court found, from the evidence, that the practice of equine teeth floating does involve concerns for public health, safety and welfare and justify the protection through statutory regulation. The Court also found that equine teeth floating is different from farrier work, dehorning of cattle, castration, tail docking, etc. further justifying regulation as set forth in the law.

The Court’s next analysis was the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution. Equal protection under the United States Constitution utilizes the rational basis test when, as here, the challenged law is an economic regulation. Under the rational basis analysis, classifications that have a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest do not violate the equal protection clause. A party challenging a Statute on equal protection grounds must demonstrate either that (1) the legislature lacked a rational basis related to a legitimate state interest for treating him differently from those not affected by the Statute, or (2) he is similarly situated to other persons not affected by the Statute.

The Court held that Johnsons’ claim under the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution fails because Johnson has not demonstrated that the law treats him differently than another similarly situated individual without a rational basis. Since Plaintiffs’ claim failed under the heightened Minnesota standard for equal protection it follows that Johnsons’ Federal protection claim also failed as well. The Judge found that the evidence at trial supports the conclusion that equine teeth floating has been properly classified as equine dentistry and is materially distinct from other forms of animal husbandry.

The Court found that the law in question was devised and directly relates to protect the health, safety and welfare of horses, the public and teeth floaters. The Statute establishes minimum qualifications to ensure that practitioners have the knowledge to float teeth safely. Specifically, to safely perform a procedure, practitioners must be able to assess whether the teeth should be floated and how to float appropriately in light of the total oral health of the horse. This assessment requires more than a working knowledge of how to operate a rasp or file. Thus, the Court found that Minnesota had the authority to regulate teeth floaters under the United States Constitution.

Finally, the Court had to deal with the substantive due process argument under the Minnesota and United States Constitutions. Both the Minnesota and United States Constitutions protect the right of citizens to earn a living free from arbitrary and unreasonable government interference (Minnesota Constitution Article I, Section 7; United States Constitution Amendment XIV). Under both the State and Federal due process clauses government regulations must be rationally related to a legitimate government interest and must not be arbitrary or capricious. The Judge found that in the majority of cases under either the United States or Minnesota Constitutions, legislation that does not violate equal protection does not violate substantive due process. In addition, without respect to occupational licensing, the challenged regulation must have a rational connection with the citizens fitness or capacity to work in a particular vocation.

Plaintiffs’ claims of substantive due process failed, according to the Judge, because the legal requirement that equine teeth floaters meet objective minimal standards of competency, skills, and knowledge is founded on a genuine and natural distinction based on the nature and impact of teeth floating and is rationally related to protecting health, safety and welfare.

The Judge found that the teeth and oral cavity of a horse are important to the animal’s general health. Proper floating and the avoidance of injury by large pointed instruments are reasonable goals related to the overall well-being of a horse. The Court further found that the Statute does not rely solely on veterinarians to float teeth, but provides for alternative licensing, for example through certification by a professional equine dentistry association and as such the law is not excessively burdensome on someone wishing to enter the equine teeth floating field.

The decision simply allows for government intrusion into yet another area of the horse world. This case is essentially an economic liberty case. Economic liberty includes the right to earn an honest living without government intrusion. It is a fact that many horsemen and women are independent self-reliant people who have been taking care of their horses for a long time without the government telling them how to do it. The American spirit of independence continues to be eroded by the expansion of government and the intrusion by government into our daily lives.

Is there logically such a difference between castration, dehorning and tail docking as compared to equine teeth floating that the former needs no regulation and the latter does? The logic is highly suspicious and the reasoning suspect.

Enough legal talk – it’s time to hitch horses.

Ken is a practicing attorney in Myerstown, PA, where a good bit of his practice involves negligence cases. Ken and his wife, Karen, own Sunny Hill Farm Belgians, and they have been exhibiting their six-horse hitch for the past few years at most major shows in the East.

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