Home » Case Summaries » 2016 » Syngenta Seeds, Inc. v. County of Kauai, 842 F.3d 669 (9th Cir. 2016)


Syngenta Seeds, Inc. v. County of Kauai, 842 F.3d 669 (9th Cir. 2016)



Syngenta Seeds, Inc., and four other companies[1] (collectively, Syngenta) that supply seeds for genetically engineered plants sued the County of Kauai (the County) after the County enacted notice requirements for pesticide use and the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. The United States District Court for the District of Hawaii found the County provisions impliedly preempted by state law and declined to certify the preemption question to the Hawaii Supreme Court.[2] Reviewing the preemption decision de novo and the noncertification decision for abuse of discretion, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

Kauai County passed Ordinance 960 in 2013.[3] The ordinance imposed several requirements on commercial farming operations, including warning signs prior to and following the application of pesticide, weekly notices to people living within 1,500 feet of the area, and “buffer zones” around properties such as schools and waterways.[4] State law in Hawaii also regulates the use of pesticides, including a separate set of notice requirements and locations of permissible use.[5]

As a preliminary matter, the Ninth Circuit applied Hawaii case law to find a strong presumption against state preemption of county regulations, which may be overcome by a showing that the legislature clearly intended for a particular state regulation to preempt local regulations.[6] Syngenta argued that the Hawaii pesticides regulation preempted the County ordinance, given the comprehensive nature of the state regulation. The court applied a three-element test used to resolve field-preemption claims under Hawaii law: 1) whether the state and local laws address the same subject matter; 2) whether the state law comprehensively regulates this subject matter; and 3) whether the legislature intended the state law to be uniform and exclusive.[7] The court concluded that the state regulation impliedly preempted the local ordinance.

First, the Ninth Circuit found the state pesticide regulation regulated the same subject matter as the County ordinance. The state regulation included a list of prohibited acts, and the state law authorized the state Department of Agriculture to establish additional standards for pesticides as necessary to avoid unreasonable harm to the environment.[8] Hawaii’s ongoing role in the pesticide regulations indicated to the Ninth Circuit that the state regulation governs the same issues as those addressed in the County ordinance.

Second, the Ninth Circuit found the state regulation to be comprehensive after considering the breadth of the statute’s provisions. The state regulation regulated every stage of pesticide use, from initial research efforts to the appropriate methods of disposal.

For similar reasons, the Ninth Circuit found that the state law satisfied the third element of the field preemption test because the comprehensiveness of the statute suggests that the state legislature intended to leave no regulatory role for the counties, and that the state law was thus meant to be uniform and exclusive.

The Ninth Circuit also upheld the district court’s decision not to refer the preemption question to the Hawaii Supreme Court. The court found the three-element field preemption test under Hawaii state law to be well defined, and concluded that the district court was able to apply the test and make an informed decision without input from the Hawaii Supreme Court.

In sum, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision finding Kauai County Ordinance 960 impliedly preempted by state law because the comprehensiveness of the Hawaii Pesticide Law indicated a clear intent by the legislature to preclude any regulation by counties in the state. The Ninth Circuit also affirmed the decision not to certify the preemption question to the Hawaii Supreme Court, given the clear standard under Hawaii law for deciding preemption issues.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Plaintiffs included Syngenta Seeds, Inc.; Syngenta Hawaii, LLC; Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.; Agrigenetics, Inc.; and BASF Plant Science LP.
  2. Syngenta Seeds, Inc. v. County of Kauai, Civ. No. 14-00014 BMK, 2014 WL 4216022, at *1 (D. Haw. Aug. 25, 2014).
  3. Kauai County, Haw., Ordinance 960 (Nov. 16, 2013).
  4. Id.
  5. Haw. Rev. Stat. § 46-1.5 (2016).
  6. Stallard v. Consol. Maui, Inc., 83 P.3d 731, 736 (Haw. 2004).
  7. Id.
  8. See Haw. Code. R. §§ 4-66-23(9), 4-66-32, 4-66-54, 4-66-62(c), 4-66-64, 4-66-66 (LexisNexis 2016).
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