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PETA seeks more than $1.4M in fees, costs from Cumberland zoo

An animal rights group is seeking more than $1.4 million in attorney’s fees and costs for its successful litigation and defense of a federal judge’s order that a lion and two tigers be removed from a Cumberland zoo where four animals had died due to deplorable conditions.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has already been awarded nearly $115,000 in its successful lawsuit against Tri-State Zoological Park of Western Maryland under the federal Endangered Species Act on behalf of the big cats.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited the act’s provision for attorney’s fees and costs to the prevailing party in awarding PETA $57,949.28 last week for its defense of U.S. District Judge Paula Xinis’ order.

Xinis made an initial award of $56,655.77 last year to PETA, which has a pending motion urging the judge to award it nearly $1.3 million more in attorneys’ fees and more than $38,000 in costs for the nearly four years of litigation in her Greenbelt courtroom.

“Litigation is always a very costly and time-consuming endeavor” and a “last resort” for PETA, said Caitlin Hawks, the group’s deputy general counsel for litigation.

The Endangered Species Act’s fee shifting provision enables PETA to defray the costs it “incurred in protecting its own mission, vindicating important congressional policies, and advancing the public interest in protecting vulnerable species from mistreatment and death,” PETA stated in its pending district court motion for additional compensation for its fees and costs.

Much of the attorneys’ fees and court costs it seeks from Tri-State will reimburse PETA for the discounted rate it said it paid its outside attorneys from Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, who helped represent the group at trial and on appeal.

The case ended in June when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the zoo’s appeal of the 4th Circuit’s decision.

In its motions for attorneys’ fees, PETA said it paid Zuckerman Spaeder $825,017 for its representation in the case, including $787,763 in U.S. District Court and $37,254 in the 4th Circuit. However, PETA said it is seeking a fee award of just $692,323 for the law firm’s work, as well as nearly $600,000 for the work of its own lawyers and staff.

Tri-State’s attorney countered the attorneys’ fee award in the case should be at most $300,000 in the District Court.

“Defendants submit that the fees sought by PETA in this case appear to be unprecedented among cases of the same complexity, and that any fee in excess of $300,000 is the result of overwork, intraoffice conferencing, and other discretionary decisions made by the plaintiff that escalated the fees in this case, and which are not allowed by the local rules of this (U.S. District) Court,” wrote Nevin L. Young, an Annapolis sole practitioner.

“There can be little doubt that this court’s pronouncement that the prevailing party would be awarded fees did not discourage the plaintiff from billing as much as possible,” Young added. “However, no fees in excess of the amount reasonably necessary to achieve the plaintiff’s goals should be allowed, and defendants submit that this amount should not exceed $300,000.”

Xinis did not state when she would rule on the motion for attorney’s fees and costs.

The case is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Inc. v. Tri-State Zoological Park of Western Maryland et al., No. 1:17-cv-02148-PX.

PETA sued the 16-acre zoo in U.S. District Court in 2017 amid reports of mistreatment of animals at the facility.

Xinis found the group had standing to sue and after a six-day trial ruled that the zoo had engaged in “flagrant and persistent violations” of the Endangered Species Act.

“Rotting vegetables spilled over large receptacles, decaying meat sat in piles outside the kitchen and in the furnace room under the nearby reptile house, and decomposing carcasses were left for days in the enclosures for the tigers and lions,” Xinis wrote in ordering that the lion and two tigers be transferred to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado.

At least four animals died amid these woeful conditions between 2016 and 2019, Xinis stated: Mbube the lion was euthanized after “a slow painful demise” from an unknown disease; Bandit the lemur died following a two-year respiratory infection and “chronic stress;” and tigers Kumar and India died of a stroke and sepsis, respectively.

In January, the 4th Circuit upheld Xinis’ decision.

The appeals court, in an unpublished 3-0 decision, rejected the zoo’s argument that PETA had no standing because no member of the organization had ever visited the zoo.

The 4th Circuit said PETA had organizational standing to sue the zoo based on its mission of protecting animals and its expenditure of time and money toward that effort, prompting the zoo’s unsuccessful request for Supreme Court review.