In a landmark settlement, Feld Entertainment, Inc., operator of the Ringling Brothers Circus, has recovered $15.75 million in attorney fees from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and their codefendants. The settlement stems from a lawsuit filed against Feld Entertainment in 2000 alleging mistreatment of federally protected Asian elephants.
In order to establish “standing” to sue, the plaintiffs (HSUS, Born Free USA/Animal Protection Institute, Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), and the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and individual citizen, Tom Rider) had to show that a member of their organizations had a personal stake in the case, such as a direct personal connection with the elephants. Those groups pointed to Tom Rider as their key witness. Rider, a former elephant trainer for Feld Entertainment, submitted sworn affidavits alleging the personal connection needed to file the lawsuit.
During the course of the lawsuit, Feld Entertainment uncovered evidence that some of the groups, with the assistance of their attorneys at the Meyer, Glitzenstein and Crystal law firm, were secretly paying Rider’s living expenses and had submitted false information regarding those payments. In total, the payments amounted to $190,000. In response, Feld Entertainment sued HSUS and the other groups under federal anti-racketeering laws known as the RICO Act.
“Sportsmen, farmers, ranchers, and other animal owners have long understood just how far these groups will go to pursue their extremist agenda,” said Nick Pinizzotto, U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance president and CEO. “Hopefully this settlement will help to rein in their underhanded ways. We’re happy to see the court dismiss this case and send a message that these sorts of tactics are not acceptable.”
The court found that Rider’s testimony was motivated by the money and not a sincere interest in elephants. After more than a decade of litigation, which was prolonged because of a failure by HSUS and the other groups to disclose the payments to Rider, the case was dismissed for lack of standing.
Because the case was filed under the Endangered Species Act, and armed with the court’s finding of misconduct, Feld Entertainment was able to pursue recovery of the $25 million in total they spent in attorneys’ fees to defend against this case. In late 2012, Feld reached a settlement with the ASPCA and recovered more than $9 million.
This is not the first time HSUS has run into questions about their tactics. In 2011, six members of Congress called on the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the tax-exempt status of HSUS in light of the substantial amount of lobbying work the group conducts.
“Conservation groups and sportsmen, who annually contribute hundreds of millions of dollars toward protection of wildlife resources across the globe, rely on sound science when it comes to managing wildlife,” said Pinizzotto. “It is unfortunate that so-called ‘animal rights’ groups try to accomplish their extremist goals through rhetoric, deception and even illegal activity as was the situation in the Feld Entertainment case. This makes it easier for mainstream America to differentiate between the groups that truly have the best interest of wildlife in mind and those who will stop at nothing to accomplish their radical agendas.”