The Humane Society of the United States and 12 other animal rights groups have reached a historic settlement in a lawsuit with Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Brothers Circus Co. The lawsuit was filed under a citizen suit provision of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law generally used to target organized crime and drug kingpins. In exchange for settling the suit, HSUS and the other organizations agreed to pay Feld Entertainment $15.75 million. This settlement comes on top of the $9.3 million that ASPCA has already paid to Feld arising from their alleged racketeering activity.
This dispute first arose nearly 14 years ago when ASPCA and several other organizations filed a suit against Feld under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) alleging that the circus mistreated its Asian elephants. This suit was tossed out of court because it was "frivilous, unreasonable, and groundless."
HSUS was not even a party to the suit. It's involvement in the suit began when it joined other animal rights groups in secretly funding the star plaintiff and witness in the case, Tom Rider. Mr. Rider, was an unemployed former Feld employee. In exchange for serving as a plaintiff and a witness in the case, HSUS, ASPCA and other organizations paid him $200,000 - his sole source of income. Professional plaintiffs are a big no-no in the court system for obvious reasons.
Without secretly funding Mr. Rider, the plaintiffs would not have been able to carry out their litigation, which cost Feld nearly $20 million to defend. In their public statement on the settlement agreement, HSUS states that Feld should devote the settlement money towards saving the lives of Asian elephants. I am not Feld's accountant, but I imagine a good chunk of this settlement will go towards the legal costs necessary to defend against this frivolous suit. If HSUS wishes to protect endangered elephants, it should look into devoting its funds towards actually protecting elephants instead of perpetuating fraud on the federal court system.
John Dillard is an attorney with Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz P.C. (OFW Law), a Washington, DC-based firm that serves agricultural clients and clients with issues before federal and state courts, EPA, FDA, USDA, and OSHA. John focuses his practice on agricultural and environmental law. He occasionally tweets at @DCAgLawyer. This column is not a substitute for legal advice.