Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Court: Animal Cruelty Statute Does Not Contain Private Right of Action
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Individuals cannot sue to enforce a state criminal law banning the confinement of animals without an “adequate exercise area,” the Fifth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Affirming the decision of Tulare Superior Court Judge Melinda M. Reed, the court held that the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit group, could not rely on Penal Code Sec. 597t to sue calf ranchers for allegedly mistreating animals by denying them an adequate exercise area because the statute does not create a private right of action.
The court similarly held that two California residents could not sue the ranchers for the animals’ alleged mistreatment under the state’s Unfair Competition Law because the residents had not alleged any actual economic injury to themselves.
The plaintiffs brought suit alleging that Victor and Debbie Mendes—the operators of Mendes Calf Ranch in Tulare County—violated state law by keeping calves penned for more than 60 days in isolation crates that were too small for them.
They alleged that the ranchers—who raised calves placed with them by dairy farmers for a period of six months before returning the calves to their owners, and raised approximately 12,000 calves at any one time—kept the calves in crates which were barely bigger than each calf, and which were too small to permit a calf to turn around or lie in a natural position for periods of rest. According to the plaintiffs, only the bottoms of the crates were regularly washed, and fecal matter and other materials were washed from the top and sides of the crates only upon a change of occupant.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, a corporation that describes its mission as protecting “the lives and interests of animals through the legal system,” sought a declaration that the ranchers’ actions violated Sec. 597t and an injunction prohibiting the ranchers from continuing to treat the animals in that manner.
“Illegally Produced” Products
The two California residents, Kristin Burford and Kristina Filipovich, alleged that the ranchers’ actions violated the Unfair Competition Law because the residents—both consumers of retail dairy products—“reasonably presumed that [dairy products they purchased] were being produced in accordance with California law and that the individual dairies providing the milk were treating their calves in accordance with California law.” Burford and Filipovich claimed that they had suffered harm and lost money as a result of purchasing dairy products that were unlawfully, unfairly and illegally produced, and sought similar declaratory and injunctive relief.
The trial court sustained the ranchers’ demurrer to the complaint on the basis that it failed to state a cause of action and the Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Justice Steven M. Vartabedian, agreed.
Examining the nonprofit’s allegations first, Vartabedian opined that the Legislature had not intended to grant a private right of action to enforce Sec. 597t in light of a separate statutory scheme effectively “deputizing” humane societies to aid local authorities in enforcing anti-cruelty laws.
“[W]e conclude there is in place an explicit and comprehensive legislative scheme for enforcement of anticruelty laws, including an explicit avenue for enforcement upon the complaint of any person,” he wrote. “This broad and somewhat unusual scheme for enforcement in the criminal system of laws for the protection of animals, including direct participation of both concerned residents and registered humane officers, demonstrates a legislative intent that these laws not be enforceable through a private right of action in civil court.”
Vartabedian went on to say that Burford and Filipovich’s claim under the Unfair Competition Law failed. Their alleged injury—that they bought milk they otherwise would not have bought if they had thought some of the producing herd may have been raised in cruel conditions—was not adequate to state a cause of action, the justice said.
“[T]he consumers allege they were deprived of the ‘benefit of the bargain,’” he wrote. “However, they do not allege any false or misleading representations that could be said to have become part of the purchase and sale agreement, even if that ‘bargain’ were viewed broadly enough to include respondents, as the dairies’ agent, and the retail consumer.”
Noting that revisions to the law made in 2004 by Proposition 64 required Burford and Filipovich to show both an injury in fact, and damages in the form of a loss of money or property, Vartabedian wrote that the residents lacked standing because the law required that an injury must be “economic.”
“[T]he consumers had the benefit of their bargain—that is, they received dairy products that were not of inferior quality,” he said. “Any injury they suffered upon learning ‘the truth’ about industrial dairy farming was not economic.”
Justices Thomas A. Harris and Herbert Levy joined Vartabedian in his opinion.
The case is Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Mendes, 08 S.O.S. 1123.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company