HOUSTON – The Texas 14th Court of Appeals upheld a judge’s dismissal of a defamation lawsuit filed by Landry’s Inc. restaurant chain and its Downtown Aquarium that claimed the Animal Legal Defense Fund defamed Landry’s by criticizing the treatment of four endangered white tigers kept at the aquarium.
The appellate court found that Harris County District Judge Steven Kirkland did not abuse his discretion when he denied Landry’s discovery and dismissed the company’s lawsuit.
The motion for dismissal was filed by Houston law firm Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos Alavi & Mensing P.C., or AZA, under a Texas law that bars strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP suits. The law allows judges to dismiss meritless lawsuits filed to silence those who speak out about a “matter of public concern.” The appellate court found that the law was not unconstitutional in the way it granted judicial discretion.
“This Texas law was designed to keep companies like Landry’s from using the courts just to squelch debate. It is gratifying to see the appellate court agree with the trial court that this was such an abuse of our court system,” said AZA lawyer Adam Milasincic, who represented the Animal Legal Defense Fund and has successfully used the anti-SLAPP law in other cases.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund announced its concerns about the four tigers in September 2016 when it delivered a 60-day notice of intent to sue — as required by the federal Endangered Species Act. The action was spurred by Cheryl Conley, a Montgomery County woman who saw the tigers’ full enclosure and living conditions at the downtown facility. Before the 60-day notice period expired, Landry’s pre-empted Ms. Conley’s lawsuit by suing the organization and Ms. Conley for defamation.
For more than a decade, the tigers, named Nero, Marina, Coral and Reef, have never been allowed outside of their enclosed area at the Downtown Aquarium. Because the Aquarium has no outdoor space for the tigers, they lack humane access to natural conditions such as fresh air and sunlight. Evidence showed the tigers are kept in 10-foot-by-10-foot cages for up to 20 hours a day.
The appellate court suggested lowering the sanctions from the trial court’s $450,000 in penalties and upheld all of the $174,000 in legal fees against Landry’s.
Ms. Conley, represented by Ashish Mahendru and Darren Braun of Mahendru P.C, filed a separate anti-SLAPP motion requesting dismissal. Ms. Conley’s dismissal was also upheld by the appellate court.
The lawsuit is Landry’s, Inc. and Houston Downtown Aquarium, Inc. v. Animal Legal Defense Fund et al. case number 14-17-00207-cv.
Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing P.C., or AZA, is a Houston-based law firm that is home to true courtroom lawyers with a formidable track record in complex commercial litigation, including energy, intellectual property, and business dispute cases. AZA is recognized by Chambers USA 2018 among the best in Texas commercial law; by U.S. News – Best Lawyers’ Best Law Firms as one of the country’s best commercial litigation firms for 2018; and previously by Law360 as a Texas Powerhouse law firm. National corporate counsel named AZA one of the country’s best in client service among law firms serving the Fortune 1000.