Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Special Memories Zoo

Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a lawsuit under the citizen-suit provision of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Wisconsin public nuisance law alleging that a roadside zoo kept animals, including endangered and threatened species, in cramped and squalid conditions that failed to meet each animal’s basic needs. After nearly a year of litigation, the defendants defaulted. The district court entered judgment for ALDF, holding that the defendants violated the ESA and that the zoo they operated was a nuisance. The court permanently enjoined the defendants from possessing or exhibiting animals.

ALDF moved then for an award of attorneys’ fees under the ESA’s fee-shifting provision. Denying the motion, the court held that a fee award was not appropriate because unresolved issues might have been decided against ALDF, the zoo might have shut down even without the lawsuit, the defendants lacked the ability to pay, and ALDF was not dependent on fee awards and receives donations to support its litigation.

Public Citizen represented ALDF on appeal. The brief explained that because ALDF obtained an enforceable final judgment and a permanent injunction abating the ESA violations and preventing their recurrence, ALDF was entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees and costs. Responding to an amicus argument that the ESA does not protect captive endangered species unless they have a role to play in restocking the wild population, we explained that several courts have found ESA violations based on mistreatment of captive animals without regard to their suitability for restocking programs and that safeguarding the lives and health of captive endangered species serves the conservation goals of the ESA by discouraging the illicit wildlife trade and avoiding source confusion.

In a decision issued on August 1 2022, the court of appeals agreed, holding that reasonable fees are presumptively appropriate when a litigant achieves some success under the Endangered Species Act, unless circumstances make the award unjust. The court held that the district court erred in denying fees to ALDF and remanded the case back to the district court to determine fees in the first instance, specifically noting that any adjustment to the lodestar should recognize ALDF’s complete success and its clear role in contributing to the defendants’ change of conduct.