By Zoe Tillman
Lawyers for animal rights groups that unsuccessfully sued the producer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus called the producer's petition for $25 million in legal fees "ridiculous" and "unconscionable" in court papers this week.
The fee request is one of the largest ever in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, according to the petition filed in October by circus producer Feld Entertainment Inc. Feld's lawyers, led by John Simpson of Norton Rose Fulbright, said the money was justified given the length and complexity of the case.
This week, lawyers for the animal rights groups accused Feld's legal team of inflating bills, failing to "exercise sound billing judgment," and overstaffing. They bristled at the number of lawyers and nonlawyer professionals who worked on the case for Feld, including more than 100 from Norton Rose alone (lawyers in the case were with Fulbright & Jaworski, which merged with Norton Rose last year.)
That Feld wasn't seeking fees for all of the timekeepers didn't make the fee request reasonable, they said.
"Counterintuitively, while [Feld's\ counsel managed to employ a staggering number of timekeepers on this case, they also failed to delegate work from the most expensive senior attorneys to cheaper associates and nonlawyer staff," the animal rights groups said.
The animal rights groups—Animal Welfare Institute, The Fund for Animals Inc. and Born Free USA—also contend that a $25 million fee award would be financially devastating. Feld reached a $9.3 million settlement with one former plaintiff, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in January 2013.
Animal rights organizations brought claims against Feld more than a decade ago alleging abuses of the circus' Asian elephants. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan entered a judgment against the animal rights groups in 2009 and granted Feld's request for legal fees last year. Feld is pursuing racketeering claims against the animal rights groups, in a separate case before Sullivan.
Lawyers for the animal rights groups argued a fee award of less than $2 million would accomplish the goal of the fee-shifting law in these types of cases—to deter frivolous claims—without "ruinous consequences."
"Plaintiffs have already been soundly deterred from engaging in similar litigation in the future by the time, cost, and disastrous result of this case," they said. "And, as small, nonprofit, public interest organizations, plaintiffs lack the ability to pay even a fraction of the ridiculous sum sought by [Feld\, a two-billion-dollar privately-held juggernaut."
Simpson defended the fee request. "The case was staffed and billed appropriately given the Court's findings that the case was frivolous, unreasonable and vexatious from inception," he said in an email. "This kind of abuse of the system can be very expensive."
"What the plaintiffs filed changes nothing as we shall demonstrate in due course," he said.
Norton Rose reported billing more than 41,000 hours on the litigation since late 2005 valued at $22.6 million. Three other law firms worked on Feld's defense: Covington & Burling, Troutman Sanders and Hughes Hubbard & Reed. Covington billed nearly 6,000 hours valued at $2.3 million for work from 2000 to 2006. Troutman billed approximately 1,300 hours valued at more than $273,000 for work in 2008 and 2009, and Hughes Hubbard billed 17.5 hours valued at around $11,700 for work in 2007 and 2008.
Lawyers for the animal rights groups declined requests for comment. DiMuroGinsberg represents Animal Welfare Institute. Zuckerman Spaeder and Alexander Smith advise The Fund for Animals and Schertler & Onorato represents Born Free USA.