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