The Greatest RICO Claim On Earth? Ringling Brothers Allowed To Pursue Animal Rights Organizations in Racketeering Action

There is an interesting decision out of Washington this month where U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan has ruled that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus can proceed with a racketeering lawsuit against a coalition of animal rights groups. The lawsuit was brought by corporate parent Feld Entertainment Inc., under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act based on the alleged payment of a former Ringling Brothers trainer Tom Rider by the animal right groups. The trainer later became a plaintiff in an action against the Circus for animal cruelty. The case is Feld Entertainment Inc. v. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 07-1532 EGS, D.D.C.

Rider is described in the opinion below:

Tom Rider was a former elephant “barn helper” and “barn man” for FEI from June 1997 until November 1999. First Amended Complaint (“FAC”) ¶¶ 4, 37. He alleged that he had suffered aesthetic and emotional injury based on his exposure to mistreated elephants while working for FEI. Specifically, Rider alleged that he “has a personal and emotional attachment to these elephants,” Complaint, ASPCA v. Feld Entm’t, Case 03-2006, ECF No. 1 at ¶ 20, that he “stopped working in the circus community because he could no longer tolerate the way the elephants were treated by defendants,” id. ¶ 21, and that he “continues to visit” the elephants he knows, even though “each time he does so, he suffers more aesthetic injury,” id. ¶ 23.

However, while previously finding error in the claims by the Circus, the court was equally skeptical as to Rider’s claims:

The Court found serious problems with the substance of Rider’s allegations. It noted that Rider had never complained to management, veterinarian, or government officials about the treatment of the elephants during the two and a half years he worked at Ringling Brothers Id. at 68. The Court also found incredible Rider’s claim that he left Ringling Brothers because he could not bear to witness further mistreatment of the elephants, noting that after he left FEI’s employment he went to work for another circus which allegedly mistreated its elephants in the same way. Id. 70. The Court also found that since his employment with FEI ceased, Rider continued to see the elephants who were allegedly still suffering mistreatment, thus undermining his claim that “he would like to again visit or observe” these elephants but “was refraining from doing so in order to avoid subjecting himself to further aesthetic injury.” Id. at 83. At the same time, Rider made little to no effort to see the elephants who were no longer performing in the circus and therefore no longer allegedly mistreated, thus undermining his claim that he “had formed a personal attachment” to the elephants and, if “they were no longer allegedly mistreated, he would visit these animals as often as possible and would seek a position to work with them again.” Id. Indeed, the Court found that when presented with videotapes of the elephants practicing for the circus, Rider could not identify the elephants to whom he was allegedly personally and emotionally attached. Id. at 84.
As to the payments themselves, the Court found that Rider had received at least $190,000 from the ESA plaintiffs since the lawsuit began. Id. at 78. The Court further found that the ESA plaintiffs had been “less than forthcoming about the extent of the payments to Mr. Rider.”

Feld alleged the animal rights activists’ payments to Rider violated federal anti-racketeering law and the Virginia Conspiracy Act. It also included a relatively rare claim of a “champertous” relationship or “a bargain to divide the proceeds of litigation between the owner of the litigated claim and the party supporting or enforcing the litigation.” Sullivan ruled that since the action sought injunctive, rather than monetary relief,”there are no ‘proceeds’ at stake to share and champerty does not lie.” He also dismissed some of the RICO claims on standing grounds as well as claims against some of the attorneys. Also dismissed as a malicious prosecution claim. However, the activists will face claims including the violation of the Virginia Conspiracy Act and abuse of process and maintenance.

The lawsuit is likely to create a chilling effect on efforts by animal rights organizations in seeking videotapes and witnesses against large corporations in the alleged mistreatment of animals. The lawsuit is clearly design in part for its deterrence value in getting such organizations to think twice about such operations.

The complaint alleged violations of RICO (Counts I and II) and the Virginia Conspiracy Act (Count III), as well as common law claims of Abuse of Process (Count IV), Malicious Prosecution (Count V), Maintenance (Count VI) and Champerty (Count VII). Counts III, IV, and VI will go forward. Count VII is now dismissed. Counts I and II are partially dismissed. (Note, at the end of the opinion, the court states that Count VI is the Champerty count and survives dismissal while Count VII is the Maintenance count and is dismissed. My reading is the Count VII is the champerty claim and is dismissed).

Here is the opinion: Circus opinion

Source: Courthouse News

31 thoughts on “The Greatest RICO Claim On Earth? Ringling Brothers Allowed To Pursue Animal Rights Organizations in Racketeering Action

  1. There is nothing bogus about the ASPCA’s claims. There is plenty of documented evidence of extreme abuse. Do a Google search … you’ll find horrifying videos of Barnum & Bailey’s mistreatment of animals. The ASPCA is not some fringe group… they’ve been around for hundreds of years protecting animals. Do some research about the abuse and decide for yourself … I personally choose not to support blatant animal abuse but maybe you think it’s okay?

  2. Justin, the ASPCA just paid Feld Entertainment over $9 million to settle it’s share of the damages. No one who cares about animals supports cruelty to elephants. However, using unethical and illegal tactics to win legal cases – against even the worst abusers – is wrong. The ASPCA is less guilty in this case than the Fund for Animals and the HSUS lawyers, but they were as part of the original suit and surely realized that when a federal judge with a solid history of rulings in favor of animals goes against them, it is time to reassess.

    • First: to restate what should be obvious, this was a civil lawsuit.

      I’m disappointed in ASPCA settling. I can understand why–the case is a bit rigged against the animal welfare groups. But I had hoped they’d stay the course, if for no other reason that we knew this action would be deliberately misinterpreted by Ringling and other groups who fight against animal welfare.

      Regardless, there’s no ‘guilt’ associated with any of this. Feld did not prove any of its allegations.

      As for HSUS, it wasn’t even involved in the first lawsuit, and I doubt it will be amenable to settling. And then we’ll see how outrageous Feld can get.

  3. Is it possible to sue for libel and slander on behalf of animals? It always infuriates me when I see people who commit horrible crimes against other humans compared to animals, as in: “The defendants acted like animals,” when what the defendants did was act like very bad PEOPLE. For instance, with very few exceptions, animals do not kill other members of their own species. When they fight, they stop as soon as the loser of the fight shows signs of giving up. Members of a pack do not violently prevent other members of the pack from having the necessities of life, food, water, shelter. Male animals rarely physically abuse or incapacitate their mates or harm their offspring. Why should animals be slandered by comparison to the worst criminals among us?

  4. Shelley, HSUS is deeply involved in the most serious charges in this case. Wayne Pacelle’s signature is on a check paid, through intermediaries, to the star witness. That is illegal. That is serious. Of course HSUS will never, ever admit to any wrongdoing, mistakes, or even errors in judgement. They usually worm their way out of scandals and investigations by invoking their 501(c)3 status and exploiting the many legal loopholes granted to charities. This case is different, and the ASPCA knew it.

    HSUS PR hacks are now pretending that the ASPCA was the primary defendent and the case is all but over now. But paying witnesses, money laundering and RICO are not part of the benefits package that comes with tax-exempt status. I believe that HSUS and the Fund for Animals will end up with a judgement against them far bigger than $9.3 million. Judge Emmett Sullivan has an excellent, pro-animal record, but was clearly appalled by what HSUS considers business as usual – and too often gets away with. Not this time.

  5. Adam, absolutely and completely untrue.

    HSUS gave a couple of grants to Tom Rider to continue his outreach. So did a dozen other organizations and individuals. HSUS was not involved in the court case at the time. It was more interested in Rider’s community work.

    Not only not illegal, but all almost all organizations provide grants for community outreach work.

    To imply otherwise is to deliberately spread misinformation.

    There was no money laundering, and no one was paid to perjure themselves. It was unfortunate that ASPCA dropped the case, but they still may have had to pay these attorney fees anyway because of the failed original case. They probably decided they might as well get out of the RICO case while they were at it.

    Unfortunately, by doing so, they opened the door to just such erroneous speculation and Feld’s rather ‘creative’ spin on the events.

    And Sullivan does not have an excellent animal record. I don’t know where this came from. He’s most known for being the judge during the Ted Stevens trial.

    What Sullivan does have is a restricted cultural outlook. The man has basically lived in the DC area all of his life. Someone like Tom Rider is completely alien to him. I do believe this influenced his decision.

    Regardless, the RICO case is just as much about Sullivan’s decision as it is about Feld and the animal welfare groups.

    I strongly believe that Sullivan should have recused himself from the RICO case. I do not believe he can be dispassionate or unbiased in the outcome, because it is, ultimately a trial on his own judgement.

  6. Shelley, I recommend that you read two excellent blog posts by Terrierman (Patrick Burns), especially the lengthy and detailed “The HSUS’s Jumbo Problem” from August and last week’s follow-up, “ASPCA to Pay $9.3 Million To Settle Fraud Charge.” He has been my major source for the Feld case. Mr. Burns, who penned a cover story for HSUS’s “All Animals” magazine” a couple of years ago, is a lot smarter than I am on these issues and shreds to pieces the idea that barn helper Tom Rider was paid for community outreach. Terrierman is fair and balanced in it’s coverage of HSUS, but as a 30 year direct mail nonprofit executive, he has written about the direct mail mill and creative accounting issues that many, many others have also criticized. In my case, it was through a brief membership in HSUS, and the years-long barrage of begging letters and sweatshop-produced junk gifts that followed. Truly appalling. Anyway, read Burns on the Feld case and get back to me here with a cogent response to his arguments. Burns, by the way, opposes the use of elephants in circuses. I do, as well.

    I would also note that the HSUS current effort to pretend that the ASPCA was the major player in the case, and that the case is all but over now, reeks of desperation. Something to tell big donors and the media – for obvious reasons. The Fund for Animals, the Meyer and Glitzenstein law firm and several HSUS-connected lawyers are also named in the action.

    HSUS’s distancing itself from the Fund when it gets in trouble is hilarious, since HSUS attaches itself to the Fund when it collects money for the Black Beauty Ranch and other sanctuaries that HSUS doesn’t even fund. Cleveland Amory is spinning in his grave, as he grew to loathe Wayne Pacelle while he was working for him as National Director of the Fund. Amory co-founded HSUS, but grew to despise HSUS leadership for just the kind of greedy and morally bankrupt practices Pacelle now specializes in. Worst of all, Pacelle relentlessly invokes and milks Amory’s respected name and golden image for every (double-billed) dollar he can fleece from the public.

    Judge Emmett Sullivan ruled in favor of wildlife in at least two recent cases, one involving Wild Earth Guardians (speeding up the backlog of Endangered Species cases, and another protecting animals in Yellowstone National Park. Ted Stevens is like Rick Santorum. Voted with HSUS/HSLF on a few laws, and is celebrated, despite odious records on other issues. Speaking of “Stevens”, the 2008 Supreme Court case U.S. vs Stevens was a big loss for HSUS, with an 8-1 decision. Every liberal judge and every liberal media outlet sided with Stevens and free-speech.

  7. I’ve seen his article. I’ve seen most articles associated with this court battle.

    His article starts with, “HSUS, the ASPCA, the Fund for Animals, the Animal Protection Institute, and the Animal Welfare Institute sued Feld Entertainment and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus…”

    And that’s inaccurate, right from the start. HSUS did not sue Feld. Why on earth would I give this person any credibility when he can’t even be accurate about something so obvious?

    And all he does is regurgitate some items from the decision, and repeat what some very well known anti-HSUS people have said.

    I’ve read all the court documents for both cases. I’m writing a book on this case. Why one earth would I defer to someone so obviously uninformed? It’s ludicrous.

    Judge Sullivan has also ruled against environmental and animal groups on some cases–he doesn’t have any direct leaning towards one group or another. That’s just more spin being put on the story. I brought up the Stevens trial because that was Sullivan’s most famous case–not because of anything related to the environment.

    Tell me something Adam: Are you paid by the Center for Consumer Freedom?

  8. I am absolutely not paid by the Center for Consumer Freedom. I agree with some of their stances and strongly disagree on others. It is insulting to imply that I am some kind of puppet. It is insulting whenever HSUS defenders imply that HSUS critics are all connected to CCF. I actually paid HSUS, PETA and ASPCA – for membership in the 1990’s, around the time I got my first real job. I wasn’t impressed with what HSUS and ASPCA were selling and didn’t renew. PETA got one renewal.

    I could ask if HSUS is paying you for writing your book, but I really don’t care. I could ask if you work for HSUS, but I’m more interested in the issues. If you are not an employee, you are clearly a strong HSUS supporter. They’ve got plenty of money. More power to you if you can get their help funding your work. Seriously. Even if you are a paid HSUS staff member, you deserve respect as an individual with a mind of your own.

    This is my last post on the Feld case. I am not going to check this blog again for any reply. I am not a legal expert, but the Terrierman analysis rings true to me. You and I disagree; nothing wrong with that. I think HSUS is a terrible organization. I have studied organizational management and mismanagement. My interest in all kinds of organizations and work in a related field are big parts of my life. I’m no shill for hire, though I could use some extra cash.

    So Judge Sullivan does not have any direct leaning towards or against environment/animal issues. That sounds like a good thing. I stand corrected about his record and should have researched it more carefully instead of basing my remarks on a couple of cases I had read about. The Feld case is interesting on several levels and I will follow it for any big developments. I read about the ASPCA settlement in a newspaper delivered to my door. I’d even be interested in reading your book on the case. Seriously.

    Take care.

  9. I asked the question because other employees of the organization have been putting forth a rather determined effort to make this all about HSUS. To a rather extreme point, as a matter of fact.

    Your determination to make it so makes little sense, because HSUS really was not involved in the first lawsuit.

    The ASPCA was the lead plaintiff in the original case. This isn’t opinion, it’s part of the trial proceedings. To make this about HSUS is to add to the growing disinformation surrounding this trial.

    I support HSUS on some things, not on others. But this isn’t about HSUS, this is about finding the truth in all of the noise.

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