Animal rights groups that unsuccessfully sued the producer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus over its treatment of elephants could be on the hook for millions of dollars in attorney fees.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan granted producer Feld Entertainment Inc.’s motion for fees on March 29. He limited his opinion to finding that the plaintiffs owed fees, putting off a decision about how much they owed for a later date. Feld claimed in its motion that it had spent more than $20 million fighting the case for more than a decade.

Feld also asked Sullivan to make several members of the plaintiffs’ legal team responsible for attorney fees, a request that Sullivan mostly denied. Feld accused the lawyers of being part of a scheme to pay plaintiff Tom Rider, a former elephant trainer with the circus, to falsely testify about having a close connection to the elephants. Sullivan wrote that, although Rider did receive money from his co-plaintiffs and his testimony was "wholly incredible," the court never found that lawyers involved paid him to lie under oath.

The judge did, however, find that former lead counsel Katherine Meyer and her firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal should be responsible for a portion of the fees. Sullivan wrote that Meyer and her firm helped Rider prepare a 2004 response to a discovery request in which he stated he wasn’t being paid by the animal rights groups, when Meyer knew he had already received money and had helped arrange the transactions.

Meyer said via email that she was "very disappointed" with Sullivan’s ruling. She pointed to a declaration she filed stating that she never intended to mislead the court. She said in the filing that Rider didn’t consider the payments formal compensation for his advocacy work on behalf of the elephants, and also that Rider’s lawyers offered the defendants information about the money under a confidentiality agreement.

Feld’s lead attorney, John Simpson of Fulbright & Jaworski, said that he and his client were "gratified that the court agreed with our view of the case and we look forward to closing the loop on establishing the claim" for attorney fees.

Bernard DiMuro of DiMuroGinsburg, a lead attorney for plaintiff Animal Welfare Institute, declined to comment. Zuckerman Spaeder’s Roger Zuckerman, lead counsel for Fund for Animals; Rider’s attorney Matthew Kaiser of The Kaiser Law Firm; and Schertler & Onorato’s David Dickieson, a lead attorney for the Animal Protection Institute, could not immediately be reached for comment.

A former lead plaintiff in the case, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, reached a settlement with Feld in December and hasn’t been involved in the fee fight.

The animal rights groups and Rider sued Feld in 2000, accusing the circus of mistreating its Asian elephants. Sullivan dismissed the case in 2009 following a bench trial, finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing. Rider’s participation was a central issue because he was the lone plaintiff with direct ties to the elephants, but Sullivan found that he wasn’t a credible witness; Sullivan noted that Rider didn’t go public with his complaints about the elephants’ treatment until after he started taking money from animal rights groups.

Feld filed a racketeering lawsuit against the animal rights groups in 2007 that is still pending before Sullivan. A spokesman for Feld, Stephen Payne, said that the $20 million number cited in the company’s motion for attorney fees in the original case didn’t include money spent on the racketeering case. "We look forward to… defending ourselves vigorously as we have for quite some time," he said.

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com.