Candy v. People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., 2221

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtOpinion by Zic, J.
Docket NumberNo. 2221,2221
Decision Date12 April 2021


No. 2221


September Term, 2019
April 12, 2021

Circuit Court for Allegany County
Case No.


Graeff, Kehoe, Zic, JJ.

Opinion by Zic, J.

* This is an unreported opinion, and it may not be cited in any paper, brief, motion, or other document filed in this Court or any other Maryland Court as either precedent within the rule of stare decisis or as persuasive authority. Md. Rule 1-104.

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Appellants Robert L. Candy, Tri-State Zoological Park of Western Maryland, Inc. ("Tri-State"), and Animal Park, Care and Rescue Inc. ("Animal Park") (collectively "Candy") instituted this action in the Circuit Court for Allegany County against appellee People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. ("PETA") and Chris Fontes along with six other defendants. Primarily, Candy alleges that they were defamed and placed in a false light by statements made by PETA in connection with its federal lawsuit against the three appellants for violations of the Endangered Species Act ("ESA"). PETA and Mr. Fontes filed motions to dismiss, which the court granted as to the defamation and false light claims but denied as to the other five claims. Following the court's dismissal of the other six defendants for lack of service, Candy voluntarily dismissed with prejudice the remaining claims against PETA and Mr. Fontes. Subsequently, the defendants filed a joint notice of consent to the dismissal and the court entered an order in accordance with that filing. Candy then noted this appeal, contesting the court's grant of PETA's motion to dismiss.


Candy presents the first question for our review and PETA raises the second question. Both questions have been reworded as follows:

1. Did the circuit court err in dismissing the defamation and false light claims on the ground that PETA's allegedly defamatory statements are absolutely privileged?

2. Do the U.S. District Court's factual findings and legal conclusions in PETA's federal action against the three appellants establish that its allegedly defamatory statements are substantially true, thereby providing an independent ground for affirmance?

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For the reasons that follow, we answer the first question in the affirmative and do not reach the merits of the second question. Accordingly, we vacate the circuit court's judgment as to both the defamation and false light claims and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Mr. Candy, Tri-State, and Animal Park own and operate a small-sized zoo located in Cumberland, Maryland. PETA is a nonprofit animal rights organization and Mr. Fontes, who is not a party to this appeal,1 is one of its employees.

On July 31, 2017, PETA filed a complaint against the three appellants in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, alleging that they violated the ESA2 by subjecting certain federally protected animals located at the Cumberland facility to harm and harassment. The specific animals at issue included two ring-tailed lemurs, five tigers, and two lions. On that same day, PETA published a blog post on its website titled "PETA Sues Over Treatment of Animals Suffering at Tri-State Zoo," which reads as follows:

PETA is suing Tri-State Zoological Park in Cumberland, Maryland, and its owner, Bob Candy, in U.S. federal court under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) over the mistreatment and abuse of lemurs, tigers, and a lion currently held there. Below is a description of PETA's allegations.

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This dismal roadside zoo has a long history of animal welfare violations. It was cited last year for failing to provide an ailing, dramatically underweight lion named Mbube with adequate veterinary care, and in February 2017, the zoo announced that he had died.

At Tri-State, two ring-tailed lemurs are kept in a woefully inadequate enclosure devoid of any environmental enrichment. Social animals by nature, they are deprived of appropriate companionship, and their living conditions are unsafe and unsanitary.

Five tigers are kept at this roadside zoo in decrepit enclosures without proper enrichment, food, potable water, shelter, or sanitation. Free-roaming animals expose them to the risk of diseases, and staff force them to engage in inappropriate and dangerous interactions with the public. In addition, three of the tigers—Kumar, Cayenne, and India—are housed together despite evidence of incompatibility, which causes them significant stress and puts them at risk of injury.

Since the death of Mbube, another lion named Peka has been held at the zoo in complete isolation, which is particularly harmful since lions are social animals. Like the other animals imprisoned at this zoo, Peka doesn't receive proper enrichment, food, shelter, housing, or sanitation, and she, too, is forced into unnatural interactions with visiting tourists.

In addition to addressing the concerns above, PETA's lawsuit asks the court to prohibit Candy and the zoo from owning or displaying endangered or threatened species in the future and to require that the current animals be relocated to reputable sanctuaries.

Help us get these long-suffering animals to a reputable sanctuary.

PETA has been tracking the chronic neglect of the animals at this roadside zoo for years. In 2013, the USDA suspended its license for 45 days and ordered it to cease and desist from violating the federal Animal Welfare Act. But even though the agency subsequently rubber-stamped its license renewal,

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the citations have continued to pile up, and in 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an official warning.

Since then, the zoo has continued to prove that it is either unwilling or incapable of addressing the animals' most basic welfare needs. Join us in our efforts to stop this cruelty.


Importantly, the record is unclear as to whether the federal complaint was filed at the time PETA published the blog.

Within the blog post, PETA included a link to an additional article titled "Factsheet: Tri-State Zoological Park." In the fact sheet, PETA provided a short summary of the following information: "citations" issued between 2005 to 2017 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture ("USDA") for Tri-State's failure to meet the standard of care set by the Animal Welfare Act3 ("AWA"); an administrative decision issued by the USDA in March 2013 finding that Tri-State violated the AWA and suspending its AWA license; and a USDA warning issued in May 2015 for additional AWA violations by Tri-State.4 The ESA action eventually proceeded to trial and the federal court issued its final

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decision on December 26, 2019. See PETA v. Tri-State Zoological Park of W. Md., Inc., 424 F. Supp. 3d 404 (D. Md. 2019), aff'd, No. 20-1010, 2021 WL 305546 (4th Cir. Jan. 29, 2021). It ruled "in favor of PETA on all theories of liability," finding that Candy violated the ESA by, among other misconduct, failing to provide the federally protected animals with adequate living conditions and veterinary care. See id. at 430-33. Candy appealed and, after oral arguments in the instant action, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the federal court's judgment. See PETA, 2021 WL 305546, at *2.

On May 23, 2018, Candy filed this lawsuit against PETA, Mr. Fontes, and six other individuals allegedly involved in PETA's efforts to monitor the Cumberland zoo.5

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Candy alleged seven counts in its amended complaint: defamation, false light, tortious interference with business relations, civil conspiracy, trespass, fraud, and invasion of privacy. The defamation and false light claims are based on PETA's publication of the blog post and fact sheet.6 Specifically, Candy argues that the blog post statements accusing the appellants of mistreating the two lemurs, five tigers, and two lions held at the Cumberland facility in violation of the ESA are false. Additionally, they argue that the fact sheet mischaracterizes USDA inspection reports noting Tri-State's AWA violations as "citations."

On March 11, 2019, PETA moved to dismiss the amended complaint for failure to state a claim. Regarding the defamation and false light claims, PETA argued that the blog post statements summarizing its federal pleading are immune from liability under the absolute judicial privilege and that the terms "citation" and "cited" in the fact sheet are an accurate way of referring to USDA inspection reports finding noncompliance with the AWA. Mr. Fontes also moved for dismissal of Candy's amended complaint.

Following a hearing, on June 20, 2019 the court granted the motions to dismiss as to the defamation and false light claims but denied the motions as to the other five claims. It also granted Candy leave to amend its defamation and false light claims against Mr.

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Fontes within thirty days, though these counts were never amended. In its separate memorandum, the court explained that the absolute privilege for out-of-court statements connected to a pending proceeding, specifically the ESA litigation, applied to all of PETA's allegedly defamatory statements and thus dismissed the defamation claim. It reasoned that PETA's statements were privileged because the federal action advanced a compelling public interest, namely the proper care of federally protected animals, there were suitable procedural safeguards in that forum, and the challenged statements described the ESA allegations and were made while the lawsuit was ongoing. This same privilege analysis, the court explained, applied equally to Candy's false light claim, thereby warranting dismissal of that count.

PETA and Mr. Fontes both filed answers on August 2, 2019. At that point, Candy had not served the other six defendants. The court then dismissed those defendants for lack of jurisdiction. Several months later, on December 12, 2019, Candy...

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