A racketeering suit brought against a coalition of animal rights groups that sued Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus over alleged mistreatment of elephants is on hold, pending the judge’s ruling on a motion to dismiss.
Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted a motion today to stay discovery until he rules on the animal rights groups’ motion to dismiss the RICO suit; Sullivan said in court that he hopes to make a decision this summer. But he did not grant the animal rights groups’ request to stay discovery pending a decision on the underlying case – the suit brought against the circus alleging abuse of its elephants – in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The animal rights groups – which include the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, The Fund for Animals, the Animal Protection Institute and the Wildlife Advocacy Project – first sued the circus and its parent company, Feld Entertainment Inc., in 2000, alleging the circus repeatedly violated the federal Endangered Species Act by abusing its elephants.
Sullivan ruled in December 2009 that one of the plaintiffs, Tom Rider, a former elephant handler for the circus, lacked standing; he did not rule on the merits of the animal abuse allegations. The animal rights groups’ appealed Sullivan’s decision and are awaiting a decision.
As the underlying case proceeded, Feld filed the racketeering suit against the animal rights groups in 2007, alleging they bribed Rider to secure his status as a plaintiff. At the time, Sullivan granted the animal rights groups’ motion to place the racketeering case on hold pending his decision in the underlying case against the circus.
Today, Sullivan said in court that while he would not put the racketeering case on hold until the appeals court rules in the underlying case, he thought it was prudent to delay discovery until he ruled on the motion to dismiss. He noted that in the past, discovery in this case has been lengthy and cumbersome due to hostile relations between the parties.
In court today, Stephen Neal Jr. of DiMuroGinsberg in Alexandria, Va., one of the lead attorneys for the animal rights groups, argued that because the circus is seeking only attorney’s fees in the RICO suit, the judge should place the entire racketeering suit on hold until the underlying case against the circus is completely finished.
John Simpson of Fulbright & Jaworski in Washington, argued that the RICO suit had independent grounds. How the animal rights groups and their attorneys handled the case has nothing to do with how the circus treats its animals, he told Sullivan.
A hearing on the motion to dismiss is tentatively scheduled for June.