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Missouri Primate Foundation v. People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

September 21, 2017

MISSOURI PRIMATE FOUNDATION, et al. Plaintiffs,
v.
PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS, INC., et al. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHERINE D. PERRY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On November 2, 2016, defendant People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sent a letter to plaintiffs Missouri Primate Foundation, Connie Braun Casey, Andrew Sawyer, and Jane Does 1 and 2. This letter served as a sixty-day notice of intent to file a lawsuit by defendants PETA and Angela Scott. The notice alleged plaintiffs were in violation of the Endangered Species Act because the poor living conditions of chimpanzees housed at the facility constituted a “take” pursuant to the Act. Before the conclusion of the sixty-day notice period, plaintiffs filed this lawsuit asserting three claims against PETA and Scott. In Counts I and II, plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief. In Count III, plaintiffs allege a claim for defamation against defendant PETA.

         This action is before me now on defendants' motion to dismiss all three of the claims. Because I find that this court does not have subject-matter jurisdiction to hear plaintiffs' claims for declaratory and injunctive relief, Counts I and II must be dismissed. Also, as plaintiffs have failed to state a claim for which relief can be granted, I will dismiss Count III.

         I. Background[1]

         The Missouri Primate Foundation is a private, nonprofit corporation located in Festus, Missouri. Connie Braun Casey is the president of the organization. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. (PETA), is a nationwide nonprofit organization focused on animals' rights. Defendant Angela Scott previously worked as a volunteer at the Missouri Primate Foundation. Plaintiffs allege that under false pretenses, Scott gained access to the facility, took pictures, and videos, and later provided this information to PETA.

         Plaintiff Andrew Sawyer is the owner of a chimpanzee named Joey, who was allegedly housed at the MPF facility. Jane Doe 2 is the owner of a chimpanzee named Chloe, who was also alleged to have been held at the facility. Jane Doe 1, originally another plaintiff in this case, has since dismissed herself from the lawsuit.[2]

         On November 2, 2016, PETA and Scott sent a written notice to plaintiffs of their intention to file a lawsuit against them under the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1540(g)(1)(A), (2)(A). In this letter, defendants alleged that plaintiffs' possession of approximately sixteen chimpanzees[3] (named in the notice letter as Chloe, Mikayla, Joey, Tonka, Tammy, Connor, Candy, Allie, Kirby, Daisy, KK, Kimmy, Crystal, Kerry, Cooper, and Coby) constitutes a “taking, ” in violation of the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1538 (a)(1)(B) and its implementing regulation, 50 C.F.R. § 17.21(c)(1).

         The ESA defines a “take” of an endangered species as to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” 16 U.S.C § 1532(19). Defendants' notice letter asserted that their claims against plaintiffs involved the “harass” and “harm” elements of a take. Under the implementing regulations of the ESA, the term “harass” is defined as “an intentional or negligent act or omission which creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns which include, but are not limited to, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.” 50 C.F.R. § 17.3. The term “harm” is defined as “an act which actually kills or injures wildlife. Such act may include significant habitat modification or degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding or sheltering.” Id.

         In the notice letter, defendants assert three grounds for alleging that plaintiffs have committed a “take” of chimpanzees housed at their facility. First, they claim the Missouri Primate Foundation, Connie Casey and Andrew Sawyer keep the chimpanzee “Joey” in isolation, depriving him of the social interaction and psychological stimulation fundamental to his well-being. Defendants also assert that plaintiffs deny the chimpanzees complex and sanitary environments, constituting a “take.” The notice letter states that the living conditions at Missouri Primate Foundation can cause serious harm to the health and well-being of chimpanzees as they have complex physical, psychological, and social needs. Defendants' letter advises plaintiffs that unless the violations cease, PETA and Scott intend to file suit seeking declaratory relief and an injunction against continued violations, including the transfer of the chimpanzees to an accredited sanctuary.

         Before the sixty-day notice period elapsed, plaintiffs filed suit against PETA and Scott. In Count I of their complaint, plaintiffs ask this Court to grant declaratory relief in their favor. Specifically, plaintiffs ask the Court to issue a decree stating that the housing, care and treatment of the chimpanzees at Missouri Primate Foundation does not constitute a “take, ” and that plaintiffs are in compliance with the ESA. Plaintiffs deny that Joey, along with “each and every one of the chimpanzees named in [d]efendants' November 2, 2016 letter . . . are housed at the facilities of the Missouri Primate Foundation.” (ECF No. 1 at 5). In Count II, plaintiffs ask the Court to issue an injunction, enjoining and barring defendants from filing their threatened law suit.

         Lastly, in Count III, plaintiffs allege a state law claim against defendants for defamation. This claim arises out of a series of statements and press releases made by PETA regarding the care of the chimpanzees at the Missouri Primate Foundation. Plaintiffs seek compensatory and exemplary damages, as well as attorney fees and litigation costs.

         Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that plaintiffs lack subject matter jurisdiction and have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. On June 23, 2017, defendants filed an answer to Count I of the complaint.[4] Defendants also filed a counterclaim alleging MPF, Casey, Sawyer and Jane Doe 2 are in violation of the “take” prohibition of the ESA. Defendants seek declaratory and injunctive relief in their counterclaim. In response, plaintiffs have filed a motion to dismiss defendants' counterclaim, which the Court will address in a later order.

         II. Discussion

         A. Count I ...


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