U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan today ruled that Feld Entertainment Inc., the parent company of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, can move ahead with its federal racketeering case against a coalition of animal rights groups.
The opinion (PDF) is the latest development in more than a decade of litigation over how the circus treats its Asian elephants. The animal rights groups sued Feld Entertainment in 2000, accusing the circus of mistreating its elephants. Sullivan dismissed the case in 2009, finding that the one individual plaintiff, Thomas Rider, who had worked with the circus's elephants, wasn't credible and had essentially been paid to serve as a plaintiff and fact witness.
Feld Entertainment sued the animal rights groups in 2007, claiming violations of federal racketeering laws and a host of other state law claims. Sullivan heard arguments on the animal rights groups' motions to dismiss in June 2011. In today's opinion, Sullivan found that Feld Entertainment met the requirements for making claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
The company, in its complaint, accused the animal rights groups of conspiring to pay Rider, bring a lawsuit under false premises and raise funds from outside donors based on "materially false and/or misleading statements" about their case and Feld Entertainment.
Sullivan found that while "litigation activities" alone can't serve as the basis for a racketeering claim, Feld Entertainment's case wasn't limited to allegations surrounding the animal rights groups' actions in court. "[T]hey claim the entire lawsuit was based on bribery of the lead plaintiff and witness," Sullivan wrote.
Sullivan ruled that Feld Entertainment can also proceed with most of its claims under state laws, which include allegations of abuse of process, malicious prosecution, maintenance (supporting a lawsuit without a specific interest in the case) and violations of the Virginia Conspiracy Act.
The judge did dismiss a few pieces of the circus's case. Sullivan found that Feld Entertainment lacked standing to bring racketeering claims surrounding the animal rights groups' legislative and "administrative advocacy" activities. He also dismissed claims of direct liability under the federal racketeering law against two of the lawyers involved in the original litigation.
Sullivan dismissed the claim for champerty, whereby someone agrees to support a lawsuit in exchange for a percentage of any money recovered. Feld Entertainment alleged a "champertous" agreement between Rider and the animal rights groups' attorneys. Sullivan found that the animal rights groups' lawsuit was a claim for injunctive, not monetary, relief, and also that there was no evidence that a champerty claim could even be brought in Washington.
A lead attorney for Feld Entertainment, John Simpson of Fulbright & Jaworski, said his client was "gratified" by Sullivan's decision, especially the finding that Feld could proceed on the federal racketeering claims. "From their perspective, the stage is finally set for them to seek and obtain justice," he said.
In an e-mail, a lead attorney for the defendants, Stephen Braga of Ropes & Gray, said that while his clients are "disappointed," he believes they'll still prevail, noting that Sullivan had to assume that the facts in Feld Entertainment's complaint were true to address a number of issues at the motion to dismiss phase.
"We dispute those facts vigorously and believe that when the facts are finally decided in the case, Feld's complaint will be found insufficient to warrant any relief on that basis instead," he said.