Will HSUS Be Bullhooked for Millions in Legal Fees?

The ongoing legal drama between a set of animal rights groups and Feld Entertainment, which owns the Ringling Bros. circus, has taken a saucy new turn. And it looks like the animal rights activists and their lawyers could soon be neck-deep in elephant dung.

First, a quick review. Animal rights activists brought a lawsuit against Feld in 2000 alleging elephant abuse in violation of the Endangered Species Act, with former Feld trainer Tom Rider as a key witness and plaintiff. After years of legal wrangling, D.C. federal judge Emmet Sullivan threw out the lawsuit in late 2009, finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing and—more importantly—that Rider was “essentially a paid plaintiff and fact witness who is not credible” after receiving at least $190,000 from the animal rights cabal, his sole source of income as the case made its way through the courts. A US Court of Appeals recently upheld the dismissal. (Read the full opinion here.)

Feld returned fire, filing a racketeering lawsuit that hinges on the court’s findings. How the alleged scheme worked, according to Sullivan’s 2009 ruling, was essentially that counsel for plaintiffs' law firm Meyer, Glitzenstein, and Crystal ran a nonprofit called the “Wildlife Advocacy Project” (WAP) and other groups funneled money through it to Rider. (Rider also allegedly received payments directly from animal rights group plaintiffs and through MGC.)

HSUS fits in because the Fund for Animals was a plaintiff in the suit against Feld, and merged with HSUS in 2004/2005. Fund chief—now an HSUS executive—Michael Markarian also apparently fits into the equation, according to Sullivan’s ruling:

Beginning in December 2001 and continuing until at least the beginning of 2008, the organizational plaintiffs made payments to WAP for the purpose of funding Mr. Rider. While FFA/HSUS (Mr. Markarian) testified that it was not certain whether WAP used its “donations” for other purposes as well, this testimony is undermined by the documents underlying FFA/HSUS’s “donations,” which indicate that the money was specifically for use in connection with this litigation. FFA/HSUS’s testimony also is questionable given that in 2003, plaintiffs’ counsel, Ms. Meyer, specifically sent an email to the representatives of the organizational plaintiffs, including Mr. Markarian, requesting funds to support Mr. Rider’s advocacy efforts regarding the elephants and the lawsuit, and expressly suggesting that the funds for Mr. Rider could be contributed to WAP so that they would be tax deductible.

Also named in the racketeering lawsuit are HSUS attorney Kimberly Ockene and HSUS Senior Vice President Jonathan Lovvorn, both of whom used to work at Meyer, Glitzenstein, and Crystal and were plaintiff attorneys during the Endangered Species Act complaint. In fact, Feld’s attorneys allege that money was taken out of an HSUS bank account and earmarked for Rider.

So what’s new?

Last week Feld’s attorneys filed a motion in the original case—not the racketeering case—demanding that the plaintiffs pay for legal fees that Feld accrued, totaling an estimated $20 million. Defending a lawsuit for a decade tends to be an expensive endeavor, after all.

This could be a double-whammy for HSUS. It could be on the hook for a good chunk of the $20 million in legal fees. Additionally, Feld is seeking treble damages under RICO against HSUS and the other defendants in the separate racketeering lawsuit—so add another $60 million to the potential pot.

And that’s not all.

Feld’s attorneys are also asking the court to officially sanction the attorneys for their conduct. They allege that “Not only did counsel bring fraudulent (Rider) and frivolous (API) claims, they doggedly pursued them for more than eleven years.” Feld alleges that the plaintiffs knew that their key witness was unreliable and “each and every step of the way counsel had an opportunity to drop either Rider or API or both (and put an end to FEI’s mounting legal expenses). Yet they did not. Instead, they embraced Rider’s lies and API’s meritless and hollow allegations…”

And since the court is apparently allowed to hold the attorneys jointly and severally liable for the estimated $20 million in legal fees (if the court rules the plaintiffs should pay it), that means HSUS, Lovvorn, and Ockene, among others, could have quite the bill, along with a bench-slap to go with it.

We encourage you to read the whole motion for all the intricacies and details. When there’s a ruling, we’ll be sure you’re among the first to know.