Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, May 26, 2017


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S.C. Rejects Taxpayer Suit as Means to Enforce Penal Laws

Justices Overturn Injunction Requiring Los Angeles Zoo to Improve Elephant Conditions




A court cannot issue a mandatory injunction to enforce a criminal statute, absent specific legal authority, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.     

In a unanimous decision, the justices overturned trial court orders—which had been upheld by a divided panel of this district’s Court of Appeal—mandating that the Los Angeles Zoo take specified measures to improve the conditions of its elephants.

At issue in the case was the proper interpretation of Civil Code §3369. The statute says “[n]either specific nor preventive relief can be granted to enforce a penalty or forfeiture in any case, nor to enforce a penal law, except in a case of nuisance or as otherwise provided by law.” 

Div. Eight of the Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 decision, relied on the “otherwise provided by law” language to hold that a taxpayer suit is a proper vehicle to enjoin the violation of criminal statutes. It thus upheld an injunction issued by then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Segal—now a Court of Appeal justice—barring the zoo from committing what Segal found to be violations of Penal Code §596.5.

That section makes it a misdemeanor for the owner or manager of an elephant to engage in specified “abusive behavior” toward the animal.

Decade of Litigation

The litigation goes back to 2007, when Brentwood realtor Aaron Leider and actor Robert Culp sued to shut down the zoo’s elephant exhibit and block the planned construction of a new, expanded exhibit. Leider and Culp complained that the zoo had been abusing and neglecting the elephants for years, and that they had violated various animal-cruelty statutes and wasted taxpayers’ money.

Leider continued to litigate the case after Culp died in March 2010. The new elephant exhibit opened later that year.

A trial court ruling in favor of the city, which held that the complaint raised nonjusticiable political questions, was reversed by the Court of Appeal in an unpublished 2009 opinion. It held that there were triable issues of fact as to whether the city was illegally condoning animal cruelty or neglect by spending money on the exhibit.

On remand, Segal ruled that practices alleged in the complaint, including electrical shocking and the use of bull hooks, would violate Penal Code §596.5. He also ruled that a new argument by the city—that §3369 barred the relief sought by the plaintiff—was foreclosed by the first Court of Appeal decision.

Following trial, Segal issued an injunction, limited to prohibiting certain forms of discipline, requiring specific amounts of exercise time, and requiring the rototilling of the soil in the exhibit in response to evidence that the ground was hard and caused cracked toes and weary joints.

Justice Laurence Rubin, writing for the Court of Appeal, said neither Leider nor the city had shown any basis for reversal of Segal’s decision. He agreed with Segal that §3369 was not intended to bar taxpayer suits.

The court declined to follow a conflicting First District Court of Appeal decision rejecting the use of a taxpayer suit as a vehicle for enforcing animal cruelty laws.

Presiding Justice Tricia Bigelow dissented. She agreed with the city that the entire case should have been thrown out under §3369.

Corrigan Opinion

Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the high court yesterday, agreed with Bigelow that §3369 codifies a “long-established” rule that criminal statutes may not be enforced by injunction absent specific statutory authority.

 She cited a line of cases, beginning with Nathan H. Schur, Inc. v. City of Santa Monica (1956) 47 Cal.2d 11, which held that a court could not enjoin a city from issuing gaming licenses on the ground that the proposed games would violate a criminal statute.

“Given this state of the law, the Legislature’s insertion of ‘ otherwise provided by law’ into Civil Code section 3369 is reasonably understood as incorporating the requirements demanded by Schur...when criminal activity is at issue:  a definition of prohibited conduct along with a provision specifically authorizing equitable relief to restrain the defined conduct,” the jurist wrote. “Schur makes it plain that Code of Civil Procedure section 526a’s general authorization of injunctive relief against ‘illegal’ expenditures does not fulfill the second requirement.”

 Leider v. Lewis, 17 S.O.S. 2582, was argued in the Supreme Court by David B. Casselman of Casselman Law Group for the plaintiff, Linda Lye for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, Inc., as amicus supporting the plaintiff, and Kathryn E. Karcher of Karcher Harmes for the city.


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