HOUSTON – The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a motion asking a Harris County judge to dismiss a baseless lawsuit filed by Landry’s Inc. and the Downtown Aquarium Inc. that claims the animal protection organization defamed Landry’s restaurant simply by publicly commenting on the long-controversial mistreatment of four white tigers, Nero, Marina, Coral and Reef. The tigers—who have never had adequate access to sunlight, fresh air or natural surfaces—have been housed indoors at the Downtown Aquarium and restaurant for 12 years.
The motion for the animal rights group was filed by Houston law firm Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos Alavi & Mensing P.C., or AZA, under the Texas Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute. This law allows judges to dismiss meritless lawsuits filed against those who speak out about a “matter of public concern.”
The Animal Legal Defense Fund announced its concerns about the four tigers in September when it delivered a 60-day notice of intent to sue—as required by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA)—on behalf of Cheryl Conley, a Montgomery County woman who says she witnessed violations of the ESA at the downtown facility. Before the 60-day-notice period expired, Landry’s pre-empted the organization and Ms. Conley by suing for defamation. Read about the case in the Law360 story “Animal Group Wants Defamation Suit Over Tiger Welfare Tossed” (subscription required), the Houston Chronicle story “Animal Legal Defense Fund asks judge to toss defamation suit filed by Landry’s”, the Texas Lawyer story “Dr. Seuss’ Aphorisms Apply in Houston Legal Battle Pitting Defamation Against Free Speech Claims” (subscription required) and in the Houston Press story “Fight Over Aquarium’s White Tigers Heats Up.”
The anti-SLAPP law allows not only for dismissal of meritless lawsuits, but for fines against those who use them to silence free speech. Ms. Conley filed a separate anti-SLAPP motion requesting dismissal. Her lawyer Ashish Mahendru of Mahendru P.C. calls Landry’s CEO and owner Tilman Fertitta, star of a reality TV show “Billion Dollar Buyer,” a “Billion-Dollar Bully.”
Mr. Mahendru’s motion asks for fines and for Landry’s to be forced to shut down the tiger enclosure as a sanction for the malicious use of the judicial system to silence its critics. “This court must liberate the tigers and place them in an appropriate wildlife sanctuary. Otherwise, not only are the tigers condemned to imprisonment: the constitutional rights of citizens like Cheryl Conley are equally shackled,” says Mr. Mahendru, who is handling the case with Darren A. Braun.
“This is a blatant attempt to silence free speech,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “Baseless lawsuits like this are often used in an attempt to intimidate and silence advocates—which is exactly why Texas has an anti-SLAPP law. Our primary concern is the health and wellbeing of the tigers—and we will not be deterred.”
AZA lawyer Adam Milasincic argues that Landry’s and its CEO and owner Mr. Fertitta are public figures, which makes discussions of the tigers’ confinement a public concern even beyond the concern about the tigers’ welfare.
“This suit’s intention is to dissuade animal advocates from starting a public dialogue about the care and environment these tigers are entitled to under federal law— including the protected right to thrive ,” says Mr. Milasincic.
The lawsuit is Landry’s, Inc. and the Downtown Aquarium, Inc. v. Animal Legal Defense Fund et al. No. 2016-79698 in Harris County’s 334th District Court.
Mahendru P.C. is a boutique commercial litigation firm whose attorneys are known for their tenacity, intelligence and experience. Founded in 2001, the firm has a simple philosophy: Your problem is our problem. We adopt it, understand it and solve it. Our objective is to resolve every case in the best, fastest and most cost-efficient manner possible. We never wait for our opponent’s next move, which means we spend a lot of time at the courthouse and are well known there.