Precedent-Setting Victory Solidifies Attorney’s Fee Shifting for Successful Endangered Species Act Lawsuits
Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision determining the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s lawsuit successfully furthers the purpose of the Endangered Species Act
MADISON, WI — The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision and ruled in favor of the Animal Legal Defense Fund to award attorney’s fees from Special Memories Zoo, a now-defunct zoo in eastern Wisconsin. The decision follows a lawsuit the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed in January 2020 against Special Memories Zoo for keeping tigers, lemurs, and other animals in inhumane conditions that violate the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as well as state anti-cruelty laws. The district court entered a permanent injunction that prohibits the zoo or its owners from possessing any animals other than dogs indefinitely.
Under the fee-shifting provision of the ESA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund successfully argued that it is entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees and costs because the lawsuit achieved success on its ESA claims. The victory against Special Memories Zoo sets critical precedent, because ESA cases are resource intensive and without fee shifting there is limited incentive for citizen groups to bring lawsuits that will help enforce the law.
“Due to the government’s failure to take action to enforce federal animal and environmental protection laws, the Animal Legal Defense Fund uses civil enforcement provisions of federal laws to combat cruelty,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “The financial burden of federal litigation can be an obstacle for advocates to take action. This decision definitively puts the financial burden on the offender — removing that as a deterrent for citizen groups to uphold the law.”
This decision should apply to 16 federal statutes that contain fee-shifting provisions for awarding attorney’s fees —including, among others, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act.
The zoo’s mistreatment of animals had been long documented by federal authorities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cited Special Memories Zoo multiple times for Animal Welfare Act violations, including for animals housed in dirty enclosures, for lack of drinking water, and for food contaminated with rodent droppings. An employee was bitten by a bear after improperly interacting with the animal, according to a 2016 USDA report. The USDA has also cited the zoo for not having enough trained staff. Despite these federal agency concerns, the zoo continued to exploit animals until the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed suit.
In March 2020, shortly after the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed its lawsuit, a fire broke out in a barn housing many of the animals exhibited at Special Memories Zoo. The barn fire, which occurred at the zoo owners’ property, killed dozens of animals, including a black buck, pigs, goats, chickens, nilgai, alpaca, camel and zebu.
The violations at the Special Memories Zoo are not unique. Roadside zoos dot the American landscape, able to operate due to lax enforcement of existing laws on both a state and federal level.
A copy of the decision is available upon request.
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