WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge sent back to a lower court a Washington, D.C. woman’s class action claim that a circus tricked her into buying tickets by lying about its animal rights commitment.
Melanie Sloan, the former head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, claimed in a complaint filed in August that, while she normally avoids circuses, she felt comfortable buying tickets to UniverSoul Circus after reviewing a statement about animal rights on its website.
However, after a friend forwarded her an email detailing UniverSoul Circus’ alleged mistreatment of animals, Sloan decided not to go the show and instead brought a lawsuit against the circus.
Sloan sued the circus for six violations of the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act, alleging UniverSoul Circus leased animals from vendors cited for violations of the Animal Welfare Act, showed elephants “who tested reactive” for tuberculosis, and kept tigers in tight spaces during magic tricks.
She sought $1,500 per violation of the law, according to the complaint.
Soul Circus Inc., which operates UniverSoul Circus, was served in the action on Aug. 19. The company filed a notice of removal a week later to send the case to D.C. District Court.
The circus claimed Sloan’s massive class, which could include every resident of D.C. who bought a circus ticket in the past three years, constitutes a “diversity of citizenship” between the Georgia-based circus and the D.C. plaintiffs. It therefore argued that the case should be heard in Federal Court.
In an opinion filed Friday in D.C. District Court, Judge Rudolph Contreras agreed the parties in the case are indisputably from different states, but questioned whether the potential damages exceed the $75,000 required for the Federal Court to claim jurisdiction.
Contreras determined previous case law says class action damages should not be combined when evaluating whether a case reaches the $75,000 threshold for federal jurisdiction, according to the ruling.
“Applying this principle to Ms. Sloan’s claims here, the court must assess… only the amount of controversy between the circus and Ms. Sloan – not the total amount in controversy between the circus and Ms. Sloan’s proposed class,” Contreras wrote in the 30-page opinion.
To the circus, Sloan’s claim for $1,500 per violation meant a new violation occurred every time Sloan saw an advertisement for the circus. This calculation sent Sloan’s claims for damages soaring past the jurisdictional threshold, according to the opinion.
But Contreras sided with Sloan in finding the circus’s math “speculative and unsupported.” A violation did not occur every time Sloan saw an advertisement for the circus, and even if it had, the circus did not show its work in calculating the potential damages, the judge wrote.
Instead, Contreras estimated a potential violation occurred each time Sloan bought a ticket to the circus. Because she bought four tickets, the total statutory damages for Sloan would be $6,000, well below the jurisdiction requirement, Contreras wrote.
The circus also couldn’t make up the difference through attorney’s fees, punitive damages or a request for injunctive relief, Contreras ruled.
“On the record as it stands, the best estimate the court can make of the amount in controversy is $6,000 in statutory damages and $2,000 in attorney’s fees, which, when doubled for punitive damages, results in a total of $16,000,” Contreras wrote before remanding the case back to D.C. Superior Court.
Contreras also denied the circus’s attempts to aggregate the potential damages under the Class Action Fairness Act. This law would have granted federal jurisdiction if the circus could have shown the class could collectively gain $5 million in damages, according to the opinion.
With an estimated 2,667 D.C. residents purchasing tickets in the past three years, six violations per ticket and each violation costing $1,500, the circus calculated Sloan and the class claimed more than $24 million in damages, the ruling states.
But Contreras again questioned the circus’s math, saying it “failed to grapple with the nuances of Ms. Sloan’s class definition,” Contreras wrote.
“When the circus estimated that 2,667 District residents would be class members, it did so solely on the basis of their (1) residency and their (2) ticket purchase in (3) the last three years,” Contreras wrote. “It erroneously included people who, for instance bought tickets without ever viewing a circus communication; bought tickets after viewing a circus communication, but not one that was allegedly unlawful; or bought circus tickets, but not because of viewing an allegedly unlawful circus communication.” (Emphasis in original.)
Contreras also denied as moot the circus’s motions to dismiss and for protective order and Sloan’s motion for class certification.
Martina Bernstein, who represents Sloan, said it is important for a D.C. judge to rule on the relatively new District of Columbia Consumer Protection Act.
“It is a foreign law to them, theoretically, so it is more appropriate to have a law that was enacted by the District of Columbia to be interpreted by a District of Columbia judge,” Bernstein said as to why a D.C. Superior Court judge should hear the case.
Soul Circus did not respond to an emailed request for comment on this story.
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