Taking Animals to Court: A Q&A with Jonathan Lovvorn and Peter Petersan

Jonathan Lovvorn is vice president and chief counsel for The HSUS’s Animal Protection Litigation and Research program; Peter Petersan is APL’s director of litigation

In 2005, The HSUS created a three-attorney team whose mission was to use state and federal laws to confront animal abuse. The HSUS tapped Jonathan Lovvorn from one of the nation’s leading public interest law firms to lead the program. Named as his chief deputy was attorney Peter Petersan, who came to The HSUS from The Fund for Animals.

Six years later, The HSUS’s Animal Protection Litigation (APL) program has grown to 15 full-time staff attorneys, a network of more than 2,000 pro bono lawyers, and a large pool of talented law students working in partnership with Georgetown University Law Center.

On any given day, The HSUS legal team has more than a hundred attorneys and law students working on more than three dozen animal protection cases all over the nation.

The HSUS’s John Balzar recently sat down with Jonathan and Peter to talk about this year’s biggest cases and victories for animals.

JB: In just a few years, you’ve built the largest and most effective animal protection legal team ever assembled. What’s the secret of your success?

JL: If we have a secret weapon, it’s our partnership with the nation’s leading law firms. You need a top-notch group of in-house litigators, but there are practical limits to what you can do with 10 or even 20 attorneys. We have exponentially increased our firepower by teaming up our small group of animal law experts with a cadre of seasoned litigators working pro bono.

In 2010 alone, upwards of a dozen major law firms contributed more than 10,000 hours—or a total donation of more than $4 million —from the private legal community to protect animals from cruelty and abuse.

PP: Because of this partnership, we have filed more than 50 legal actions against animal abusers in twenty five states, and won more than 80 percent of our cases. We have halted dozens of government programs that put animals in peril, shuttered major animal abusing operations, and helped law enforcement officials bring scores of animal abusers to justice.

JB: What have been some of your most important new cases this year?

PP: This year has been busy. We filed twenty legal actions that span the range of The HSUS’s work. We were particularly busy with puppy mill litigation. In addition to helping to develop the ballot language for the recently enacted Missouri puppy mill initiative, our legal team successfully defended the measure from a court challenge by commercial dog breeders. We then switched from defense to offense and filed more than ten legal actions challenging the cruel realities of life for dogs trapped in Missouri puppy mills.

We also filed a complaint over numerous animal welfare and safety violations at a roadside zoo in Collins, Mississippi, petitioned USDA to crack down on cruel horse soring practices, and filed an action to stop illegal political payments by the Ohio Gamefowl Breeders Association aimed at thwarting our cockfighting legislation.

We also filed several new cases to protect wildlife, including actions to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales in Georgia and Massachusetts, and to list imperiled porbeagle sharks under the Endangered Species Act.

JL: There are also several new farm animal cases, including an action to stop factory egg farm Rose Acre Farms from making false claims about “humane” treatment of “happy” animals, and a petition asking the Department of Justice for a criminal investigation based on new information showing that egg industry executives fixed egg prices by operating a bogus animal welfare certification scheme.

This month, we also announced a major class action lawsuit against Perdue Farms over the false advertising of factory farmed chicken products as “humane.” And we also joined with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to file a complaint challenging illegal lobbying by Washington, D.C., lobbyist Rick Berman.

JB: And what about your biggest victories for 2010?

JL: It was a very good year. We won a dozen major rulings, and only saw one major loss—the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the federal ban on animal crush videos. But Congress just passed a new law that resolves the Court’s concerns, so even that loss was temporary.

PP: One of our biggest victories was in New York, where we won a major water pollution case against Hudson Valley Foie Gras. The judge issued an injunction against further Clean Water Act violations, ordered fines of $25,000 for each future violation by the company, and ordered it to pay $50,000 for an environmental cleanup project.

JL: We also won our lawsuit against several of the nation’s largest department stores and fashion designers over false advertising and mislabeling of fur garments. This included settlements with Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, Saks Incorporated, Lord & Taylor, and Andrew Marc. The Superior Court also entered a final judgment declaring that Neiman Marcus violated D.C. law, enjoining further false advertising, and requiring Neiman to pay damages and court costs.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also overturned a lower court injunction blocking a California law banning the use of sick and disabled (“downed”) animals in the human food supply. After a lower court blocked the law at the request of the National Meat Association, we appealed, and the ruling is a great victory for farm animal protection and for consumers.

PP: In August, we won our lawsuit to stop the slaughter of wolves and reinstate federal Endangered Species Act protections. The ruling prevents wolf hunting from going forward in Montana and Idaho.

And then just recently, the Ninth Circuit Court handed us a major win when it halted the killing of federally protected sea lions at the Bonneville Dam in response to our lawsuit against this senseless program.

JL: Our legal efforts also resulted in new habitat protections for right whales, a halt to a new migratory bird hunting program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, a ruling that the Ohio Gamefowl Breeders Association violated campaign finance laws, a decision by the Park Service to cancel a program to poison crows, a ruling by a federal appeals court rejecting a constitutional challenge to the newly enhanced federal animal fighting statute, and a ruling holding that there is no constitutional right to operate a puppy mill free of humane regulations.

JB: On a personal level, what has been your most satisfying victory to date?

JL: For me, winning the first class-action suit ever filed against a puppy dealer has been the most satisfying. This concerned the sale of sick and dying puppies to unsuspecting consumers by notorious Florida puppy dealer Wizard of Claws.

Wizard of Claws filed for bankruptcy last year, the store closed, and all of its assets went up for sale. When we learned the bankruptcy trustee was going to auction off the store’s remaining puppies, we brokered a deal to have all 32 dogs rescued and placed for adoption. Watch video about this case»

But the best part personally was that one of the lawyers who worked to build the case, Marci LaHart, was able to accompany us when we went in to rescue the dogs. When all the dogs were safe, she shut out the lights and closed the door for the last time. That was a very special moment for the legal team.

JB: What has been the most disappointing loss?

PP: They’re all disappointing because so much is at stake. But sometimes a loss is a necessary step in a larger campaign. Two years before we won the campaign to enact California Proposition 2—a sweeping legal reform for farm animals—we lost a suit to ban battery cages under the California cruelty code.

It was heartbreaking, and we had strong arguments. But the court said you need to change the law if you want hens out of battery cages, and that’s exactly what we came back and did. Sometimes a courtroom loss is needed to clear the decks for legislative change.

JB: Your program includes some novel legal theories. What is hot in animal law right now?

JL: I think one of the most interesting things we have done is to pioneer the use of class action consumer litigation to address animal abuse on a scale that was previously impossible. Over the last several years, we have deployed this approach in cases concerning the fur industry, the puppy mill industry, and factory farming. The class action remedy allows us to aggregate relatively small financial injuries into a powerful class of plaintiffs capable of changing a defendant’s policies towards animals.

It’s odd to say, but most abused animals are sold to someone, at some point. Someone is usually making money off the abuse, and they can’t do that unless some consumer is buying it—often unwittingly.

PP: This is the true power of the individual to effectuate change for animals. People can vote with their own buying choices. When cruel and inhumane products are sold to consumers based on false and misleading claims about humane treatment, there are strong legal remedies, including class action litigation, to address such abuses.

JB: What cases should we watch out for in 2011?

PP: It’s going to be a busy year.

Our air pollution lawsuit on behalf of the suffering neighbors of a massive hen confinement operation in California is going to trial before a jury in early 2011. The case has already resulted in more than $140,000 in sanctions against the defendant for destroying evidence, and the trial should be a very interesting peek at the environmentally damaging underbelly of this industry.

We are also proceeding with a major class action lawsuit filed last year against national puppy retailer Petland, which is the largest case of its type ever filed. And we are deep into pretrial work on a first of its kind multi-million dollar False Claims Act against the owners of the infamous Hallmark/Westland meat packing plant for abusing downed animals and defrauding the federal school lunch program.

JL: As you can tell, we’re ready to move on quick notice when animals need help in the courts. I am sure there will be many other cases, and plenty of opportunities to get involved, donate legal work, or make a financial contribution to help stamp out animal cruelty. I hope that 2011 takes us even further towards our ultimate goal of making sure that all animals get the legal protections they deserve.

View more news and recent victories from Animal Protection Litigation.


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