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Elephant Activists Still Face Claims From Circus

(CN) - Animal activists who pursued an 11-year long legal battle over elephants in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus may be liable for paying their star witness, a federal judge ruled.

In 2000, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other proponents of animal rights, including former Ringling Brothers barn helper Tom Rider, filed suit against the circus's producer, Feld Entertainment; Disney On Ice, and other shows. The complaint claimed that Feld violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by chaining the elephants in between performances and controlling them with bull hooks, rods with a metal point and hook on one end.

The case was quickly dismissed for lack of standing, but the D.C. Circuit revived it in 2003 after concluding that the activists could establish standing with proof of the allegations.

After a six-week trial, the District Court determined the animal rights activists failed to prove their allegations because the evidence was insufficient and because Rider was not a credible witness, as he joined the lawsuit only after receiving payment from the animal rights organizations.

On appeal, Rider challenged the court's need for him to prove a "single-minded, all-consuming obsession" with the elephants, instead of a "personal attachment," as dictated by case law. Rider said he satisfied that attachment by working closely with the elephants for over two years, complaining to his supervisor about the elephants' mistreatment, and visiting the elephants several times per year for his media work.

The claims failed to convince a three-judge panel, however, and Feld struck back with a counterclaim alleging the animal rights activists' payments to Rider violated federal anti-racketeering law and the Virginia Conspiracy Act, among other things.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan on Monday dismissed a claim that Rider had a "champertous" relationship with the activists' attorneys, referring to the legal doctrine involving "a bargain to divide the proceeds of litigation between the owner of the litigated claim and the party supporting or enforcing the litigation."

Since Feld's complaint seeks injunctive, rather than monetary relief, Sullivan said "there are no 'proceeds' at stake to share and champerty does not lie."

He also partly dismissed some of the RICO claims after finding that Feld lacks standing to challenge the activists' legislative and administrative advocacy efforts. Rider and others also have immunity from allegations that they were paid to make false or misleading public statements.

Two attorneys named in the complaint, Howard Crystal and Kimberly Ockene, also will not face the RICO claims because Feld failed to allege direct liability, according to the ruling.

Sullivan dismissed a malicious prosecution claim as well against Rider and the Animal Protection Institute because the underlying lawsuit was not dismissed on the merits, thus "it was not favorable in the legal sense required to support an allegation for malicious prosecution."

The remaining claims that will proceed include violation of the Virginia Conspiracy Act, abuse of process and maintenance, which is the doctrine involving the improper "stirring up litigation and strife."

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