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When evaluating whether a law is discriminatory, "a court should focus on discrimination against interstate commerce—not merely discrimination against the specific parties before it." Colon Health Ctrs. of Am., LLC v. Hazel ("Hazel I"), 733 F.3d 535, 543 (4th Cir. 2013) (emphasis in Hazel I) (citing Exxon Corp., 437 U.S. at 127). The "principal focus of inquiry must be the practical operation of the statute, since the validity of state laws must be judged chiefly in terms of their probable effects." Lewis, 447 U.S. at 37. Therefore, discerning whether a statute is discriminatory may "require looking behind the statutory text to the actual operation of the law." Hazel I, 733 F.3d at 544.
Four pet stores, a dog breeder, and a dog broker have filed suit, seeking, inter alia, an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the State of Maryland's "No More Puppy-Mill Pups Act" (the "Act" or "Puppy-Mill Act") as well as a declaration that the Act is unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Under the Act, which went into effect on January 1, 2020, retail pet stores located in Maryland "may not offer for sale or otherwise transfer or dispose of cats or dogs." The plaintiffs alleged that the Puppy-Mill Act is per se invalid under the Commerce Clause because it discriminates against out-of-state dog breeders and brokers in its text, purpose, and effect. Plaintiffs also alleged that the Puppy-Mill Act deprives plaintiffs of their constitutional right to the equal protection of law, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. According to plaintiffs, the Act violates equal protection because it "treats Plaintiffs differently than others similarly situated," The State has moved to dismiss the Complaint, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1), on sovereign immunity grounds, and under Fed. R. Civ. 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim.
Is the Act constitutional under the Commerce Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution?
The court found that the Act neither singles out local breeders for preferential treatment nor specially disadvantages out-of-state breeders. Because the Act's text is neutral in its application towards in-state and out-of-state breeders, plaintiffs have not stated a plausible claim that the Act is facially discriminatory. Accordingly, the court held that plaintiffs have failed plausibly to allege that the Act discriminates against out-of-state breeders and brokers in its text, in its effect, or in its purpose. The court also found that the plaintiffs' equal protection claim is subject to traditional principles of rational basis review. Under traditional rational basis review, plaintiffs have failed to plead a plausible equal protection violation. Their claim falters at the starting gate because they do not identify a similarly situated comparator group. The Complaint merely alleges that the Puppy-Mill Act "treats Plaintiffs differently than others similarly situated[.]" But, it is axiomatic that "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action" do not satisfy Rule 8. Thus, plaintiffs' conclusory assertion does not come close to pleading a plausible equal protection claim.