Animal Activist Groups Saddled With Attorney’s Fees for “Groundless” Lawsuit

By Stewart D. Fried & John G. Dillard

In an important ruling that will almost certainly be appealed, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently held that several animal rights activists groups are jointly and severally liable for the attorney’s fees Feld Entertainment, the producer of Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus (“Ringling”), spent defending an Endangered Species Act (ESA) case targeted at its treatment of Ringling’s circus elephants.

The attorney’s fees issue is the latest chapter in this lengthy dispute.  During July 2000, the ASPCA, Animal Protection Institute, Animal Welfare Institute and several other “animal rights” groups objected to Ringling’s use of bullhooks and chains in connection with its training of Asian elephants.

The groups filed suit under the ESA, arguing that Feld’s elephant training and handling techniques violated the Act.  Standing to sue is a procedural hurdle which associations and other groups must meet in order to establish federal court jurisdiction; in animal rights suits, this is a difficult burden to meet as association members rarely suffer a legal injury based upon the alleged maltreatment of animals.  In a novel attempt to meet the standing requirement, the plaintiffs recruited and paid a former Feld employee, Tom Rider, to serve as a co-plaintiff based on his purported personal and emotional attachment with the Ringling elephants.

The groups’ use of a paid plaintiff to establish standing ultimately backfired.  During pre-trial discovery, Feld learned that Mr. Rider was paid approximately $200,000 by the animal rights groups to serve as a plaintiff.  In 2009, after a six-week non-jury trial, the federal district court in Washington ruled in Feld’s favor, holding Tom Rider and the animal rights groups did not have standing to sue.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed this decision in 2011.

Armed with a judgment holding that the animal activists’ lawsuit was groundless, Feld sought to recoup some of the attorney’s fees and costs it spent fighting the decade-long lawsuit under the fee-shifting provision of the ESA.  On March 29th, the District Court held that the plaintiffs are jointly and severally liable for Feld’s attorney’s fees on the basis that the ESA claim was “frivolous, unreasonable, and groundless.”  Although Ringling will have to wait for a decision regarding the amount it will be entitled to recover, the Court’s determination that the animal rights groups’ lawsuit was meritless ensures that they will be on the hook for at least some of $20 million dollars in attorney’s fees and costs that Ringling was forced to spend.

Feld also sought to hold the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which was not a party in the lawsuit, liable for its attorney fees on the basis that HSUS was one of the organizations that paid Tom Rider to participate as a plaintiff in the frivolous litigation.  The court denied Feld’s request to hold HSUS liable on procedural grounds, but have left the door open for it to re-file a claim against HSUS for attorney’s fees.

In a related matter, Feld’s lawsuit against the plaintiffs, their attorneys, and HSUS under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) remains pending.  ASPCA has already agreed to pay $9.3 million to Feld to settle the attorney’s fees and RICO claims.  Although racketeering claims are notoriously difficult to prove, a judgment against HSUS will have profound implications for animal rights and other associations that improperly attempt to use the courts to accomplish their policy goals.

You may view the opinion regarding attorney’s fees here.