Collins v. Tri-State Zoological Park of W. Md., Civil Action No. 1:20-cv-01225-PX

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
Writing for the CourtPaula Xinis United States District Judge
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 1:20-cv-01225-PX
Decision Date21 January 2021

CONSTANCE COLLINS, et al., Plaintiffs,

Civil Action No. 1:20-cv-01225-PX


January 21, 2021


Plaintiffs Constance Collins and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. ("PETA"), bring this public nuisance action, alleging that the roadside zoo owned and operated by Defendants Tri-State Zoological Park of Western Maryland, Inc., Animal Park, Care & Rescue, Inc., and Robert L. Candy (collectively "the Zoo") violates Maryland's cruelty to animals statute, Md. Code, Crim. Law § 10-604, and the Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131-2159 ("AWA"), and thus constitutes a public nuisance under Maryland common law. ECF No. 1. Pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. ECF No. 14. The Motion is fully briefed and no hearing is necessary. See Local R. 105.6. For the following reasons, Defendants' motion to dismiss is denied.

I. Background

The Court takes the facts plead in the Complaint as true and in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs. Defendants own and operate a roadside zoo in Cumberland, Maryland. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 11-13. The Zoo houses approximately 110 animals including mammals, birds, and reptiles. Id. ¶ 15. The Zoo exhibits are open to the public for a small admission fee. Id.

Plaintiffs contend that the Zoo abuses and neglects its animals in violation of Maryland's

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cruelty-to-animals statute, Md. Code, Crim. Law § 10-604, and the AWA, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131-2159. Defendants fail to provide the animals with the most basic of necessities. The animals are not given proper nutrition or clean water. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 35-39, 78-89. They instead live on a diet of commercial cat and dog food, spoiled donations, and baked goods. Id. ¶¶ 82, 84-85, 87-88. At times, the Zoo does not feed the animals at all, and at other times volunteers have been forced to buy food for the animals when Candy refused to do so. Id. ¶¶ 83, 86.

Animals also live in dangerous and substandard conditions. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 40-62, 90-97. Defendants do not clean the animal enclosures which are littered with rotten food and feces. Id. ¶¶ 47-48. These unsanitary conditions produce noxious smells and significantly increase the risk of illness for the animals. Id. ¶¶ 49, 51, 53, 57-59. The animal habitats are poorly constructed, not maintained, and are plagued by structural hazards, resulting in injury and on occasion, death. Id. ¶¶ 42-43, 60-62. The structures are bereft of any meaningful enrichment or appropriate opportunities for socialization. Id. ¶ 63-76.

Defendants do not provide the animals adequate—or sometimes any—veterinary care. Sick and dying animals are left to suffer instead. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 23-34. Inadequate veterinary care at the Zoo has resulted in at least one animal's—a kinkajou's—death. Id. ¶ 28. These failures inflict pain and suffering on the entirety of the Zoo's inhabitants. Id. ¶¶ 63-77.

The deplorable conditions at the Zoo are readily apparent to regulatory authorities. Since 2008, the Zoo has received several citations for violations of the AWA. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 20-21, 22 (citing Tri-State Zoological Park of W. Maryland, Inc., 72 Agric. Dec. 128, 2013 WL 8214620 (U.S.D.A. 2013) (Decision & Order); Tri-State Zoological Park of W. Maryland, Inc., 71 Agric. Dec. 915, 2012 WL 3877392 (U.S.D.A. 2012) (Decision & Order)). Additionally, this Court has found after trial that Defendants had committed several violations of

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the Endangered Species Act constituting a "take" of the lions, tigers and lemurs at the Zoo. PETA v. Tri-State Zoological Park of W. Maryland, 424 F. Supp. 3d 404 (D. Md. 2019). The trial evidence demonstrated that Defendants' acts and omissions plainly led to the horrifying deaths of several protected species. Id. at 408, 420-426. The trial evidence also demonstrated that Defendants' mistreatment of the animals constituted all manner of AWA violations. Id. at 412-14.

Visitors to the Zoo also bear witness to the animals' suffering. Plaintiff Collins, a New Jersey resident, visited the Zoo in July 2018. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 6, 9. Collins derives much personal pleasure from viewing animals in their natural habitats. Id. ¶¶ 9, 102. During her visit, Collins became emotionally attached to the animals and experienced the pain of viewing their suffering. Id. ¶¶ 9, 103-07. So great was Collins' emotional distress and anguish that she became ill after the visit. Id. ¶¶ 104-05. Collins decided that she could not return to the Zoo so long as the animals continued to live in the above-described conditions and set out to improve the animals' situation. Id. ¶¶ 9, 105-06. In particular, Collins first contacted Allegany County Animal Control to seek help for the animals. She also alerted media organizations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and PETA about what she witnessed. Her objective was to rectify the Zoo's mistreatment of the animals in its care. Id. ¶ 106.

Plaintiff PETA is an animal welfare organization dedicated to protecting animals from abuse, neglect, and cruelty. ECF No. 1 ¶ 111. The organization engages in a variety of efforts to this end, such as educational programming, cruelty investigations, protests, legislative lobbying, and litigation. Id. ¶ 113. PETA avers that as a result of Defendants' longstanding animal abuse and mistreatment, it has been forced to engage in programming and advocacy efforts to eradicate the mistreatment of animals at the Zoo. Id. PETA must also redirect substantial efforts to

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disabuse the public of the sense that the Zoo is some kind of "refuge" or sanctuary for abandoned or unwanted animals. Id. at ¶¶ 114-15. PETA has sent staff and volunteers to observe the Zoo's mistreatment of the animals, gather the evidence necessary to file formal complaints to government agencies, and document the Zoo's mistreatment of the animals on PETA's website and other platforms. Id. ¶¶ 116-17. PETA has also been forced to engage in protracted litigation before this Court to combat Defendants' abuse and mistreatment of the animals.1

On May 14, 2020, Plaintiffs filed the Complaint against Defendants, alleging a single public nuisance claim. ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs' liability theory is that the Zoo's operations violate Maryland's animal cruelty statute as well as the AWA, and thus constitute an unreasonable interference with public morals, justifying equitable relief from this Court. Id. ¶¶ 125-128. Defendants now move to dismiss the Complaint, principally arguing that the claim fails as a matter of law, and relatedly, that each Plaintiff lacks standing. ECF No. 14. At this juncture, the Court finds that Collins maintains standing and that the action, as pleaded, must go forward.

II. Standard of Review

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of standing challenges the Court's power to hear the case. White Tail Park, Inc. v. Stroube, 413 F.3d 451, 459 (4th Cir. 2005); Axel Johnson, Inc. v. Carroll Carolina Oil Co., Inc., 145 F.3d 660, 661-62 (4th Cir. 1998) (affirming the district court's dismissal of the complaint for lack of standing pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1)). Thus, as a general matter, the Court must determine whether it has jurisdictional standing before reaching the merits of the case. Jones v. Am. Postal Workers Union, 192 F.3d 417, 422 (4th Cir. 1999).

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A motion to dismiss brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of the complaint. Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006). The Court accepts "the well-pled allegations of the complaint as true," and construes all facts and reasonable inferences most favorably to the plaintiff. See Ibarra v. United States, 120 F.3d 472, 474 (4th Cir. 1997). To survive challenge, a complaint's factual allegations "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citations omitted). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555) ("[A] plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do."). Likewise, the Court need not accept unsupported legal allegations, see Revene v. Charles Cty. Comm'rs, 882 F.2d 870, 873 (4th Cir. 1989), legal conclusions couched as factual allegations, Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986), or conclusory factual allegations devoid of any reference to actual events, United Black Firefighters of Norfolk v. Hirst, 604 F.2d 844, 847 (4th Cir. 1979).

III. Analysis

A. Standing

Defendants contend that Plaintiffs lack standing to pursue a Maryland common law public nuisance claim. "Standing in federal court is a question of federal law, not state law." Hollingsworth v. Perry, 507 U.S. 693, 714-15 (2013). Article III of the United States Constitution makes plain that federal courts are of limited jurisdiction, hearing only live "cases" and "controversies." Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 559 (1992); U.S. Const. art.

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III, § 2. A party's standing to maintain an action "is an essential and unchanging part of the case-or-controversy requirement of Article III." Davis v. FEC, 554 U.S. 724, 733 (2008) (citations omitted).

Standing requires that any one Plaintiff demonstrate she has "(1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision." Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016) (citing Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560-61). Standing "must be supported in the same way as any other matter on which the plaintiff bears the burden of proof, i.e.,...

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