Biden-nominated Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi wrote a 2-1 decision that reversed a lower court and ordered attorneys’’ fee and costs as part of the complete relief against a roadside private zoo that committed cruel mistreatment of animals in violation of federal law. The decision set a precedent that will make it easier to enforce the Endangered Species Act. A Trump judge dissented in the Seventh Circuit ruling. The August 2022 decision was in Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) v Special Memories Zoo (SMZ)
What was the case about?
SMZ and its owners operated a roadside zoo in Wisconsin. A member of ALDF, as well as a number of others and a former zoo employee, observed terrible mistreatment of the animals there This included keeping endangered animals like lions, tigers, and lemurs in “squalid and cramped cages” without “clean water,” despite “obvious injuries” and “signs of distress.” Reports also documented cruel mistreatment of other animals. For example, “their water was rancid, their food was infested with rodents and bugs, and their enclosures were flimsy and incapable of protecting them from bad weather” and other problems.
Federal agencies had previously cited SMZ for some of its mistreatment. For example, the Department of Agriculture cited it numerous times for Animal Welfare Act violations. This included lack of clean water, food “contaminated with rodent droppings,” lack of enough trained staff, and more. But agencies took no enforcement action, and SMZ continued to mistreat and exploit animals.
Pursuant to its efforts to protect wildlife and animals, ALDF filed a federal lawsuit against SMZ because of the mistreatment. The lawsuit contended that SMZ’s mistreatment of endangered and threatened animals like tigers violated the Endangered Species Act. The Act specifically authorizes “citizens suits” to enforce some of its protections. The lawsuit also stated that mistreatment of other animals violated state law.
What happened after the lawsuit was filed?
SMZ initially contested the suit vigorously. They filed an answer and then moved to dismiss the case, contending that they were in the process of selling the animals and closing the zoo. The district court denied the motion. It noted that no evidence had been submitted to back SMZ’s claim, and ordered limited discovery on the issue.
SMZ, however, instead asked for a default judgment against itself, stating it had sold the zoo and did not want further litigation. ALDF agreed that a default judgment was appropriate, but that it should include injunctive relief against SMZ and its executives to prevent such misconduct in the future. The court entered such a judgment, finding that SMZ in fact “did violate” the Act. It prohibited SMZ and its executives from “possessing or exhibiting animals other than their pet dogs.”
ALDF then requested payment of its costs and attorneys’ fees, totaling over $71,000, pursuant to provisions of the Act which authorize payment to “prevailing parties” from defendants when “appropriate.” The district court declined, primarily claiming that ALDF’s lawsuit did not “contribute substantially” to the outcome of the case. ALDF disagreed, especially in light of federal agency previous failure to take action, and appealed.
What happened on appeal?
On appeal, Trump judge Thomas Kirsch agreed with the lower court that ALDF’s lawsuit “played only a small role in closing” the zoo. But Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, joined by Judge David Hamilton, strongly disagreed and reversed the lower court. Judge Jackson-Akiwumi explained that the facts were clear that ALDF had at least won “some success” by obtaining a decision recognizing that its claims were correct and obtaining a “permanent injunction” against SMZ or its executives from possessing or displaying animals. It thus achieved “all the relief possible” under the act.
The majority also determined that the lower court had “clearly erred” in finding that the lawsuit did not really contribute to what SMZ asserted was its decision to close the zoo. The majority wrote that the record was clear that defendants had “twice admitted” that the lawsuit played a role in ther decision, and even if the death of the primary owner was an important cause, there is “simply no evidence” that other SMZ officials could or would not have sought to continue “operating the zoo.” The majority reversed and sent the case back to the lower court to determine the appropriate fees and costs to be assessed against SMZ and the other defendants.
Why is the decision important?
Private litigation under the Endangered Species Act is very “resource intensive.” As ALDF has pointed out, without fee-shifting, the “financial burden” may make it impossible for private groups to seek to enforce the law, particularly where the government has failed to take enforcement action as in this case. This precedential decision, ALDF went on, “puts the financial decision on the offender” and removes this “deterrent for citizen groups to uphold the law.” The ruling may also help with the enforcement of other federal environmental statutes with fee-shifting positions.
The decision is yet another example of the importance of continuing to expeditiously confirm fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Jackson-AKiwumi. This objective is particularly important in light of the continued prescence on the bench of Trump judges like Judge Kirsch.