A photo from the Ringling Brothers litigation and trial
A photo from the Ringling Brothers litigation and trial (Courtesy of The Humane Society of the United States)

Animal rights groups that unsuccessfully sued the producer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will pay $15.75 million to settle the case and a separate racketeering lawsuit brought by the producer.

The agreement ends nearly 14 years of litigation between Feld Entertainment Inc. and a coalition of organizations that sued the circus over its treatment of Asian elephants. Under the terms of the settlement, Feld agreed to drop a separate racketeering lawsuit against the animal rights groups and one of the plaintiffs firms concerning their handling of the elephant litigation.

Between the deal announced Thursday and an earlier settlement, Feld has received more than $25 million. That’s enough to fully reimburse the company for its legal fees, according to lead attorney John Simpson of Norton Rose Fulbright.

The outcome “makes amends for serious abuses of the judicial system,” Simpson said. Three other law firms—Covington & Burling, Troutman Sanders and Hughes Hubbard & Reed—have worked on Feld’s defense since 2000.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington dismissed the animal rights groups’ claims under the Endangered Species Act in 2009. Sullivan found they lacked standing because they had no direct ties to the elephants. He discredited testimony by the lone plaintiff with a connection to the animals, a former elephant trainer, finding that the animal rights groups paid the trainer to participate in the case. He didn’t address the allegations of elephant abuse.

In March 2013, Sullivan ruled the animal rights groups would have to cover Feld’s legal fees. According to Feld’s lawyers, it was the first time a judge awarded fees to a defendant that defeated Endangered Species Act claims.

Feld filed a petition in October 2013 seeking more than $25 million in fees. The company reached a $9.3 million settlement in December 2012 with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Simpson said Thursday that had the fee dispute moved forward, the parties would have addressed how to credit money the ASPCA already paid.

In court papers filed in April, lawyers for the animal rights groups called the fee request “ridiculous” and “unconscionable.” They argued for an award of less than $2 million.

In written statements Thursday, the groups said it made financial sense to settle, given the costs of continuing to fight in court. Had Feld won the racketeering case, they could have been on the hook for many millions more.

Sullivan’s rulings “made it clear to these people that they had some serious exposure, particularly in the RICO case,” Simpson said.

Once Sullivan dismissed the Endangered Species Act claims based on standing, “the legal proceedings stopped being about the protection of elephants,” said Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute. “Nonetheless, as a result of all the facts discovered and presented as evidence at trial, Feld’s treatment of Asian elephants has finally been exposed for the public to see.”

Feld denied mistreating its elephants. “We look forward to continuing to set the standard for providing world-class care for all our animals,” chairman and chief executive officer Kenneth Feld said in a written statement.

“We hope this settlement payment, and the various court decisions that found against these animal rights activists and their attorneys, will deter individuals and organizations from bringing frivolous litigation like this in the future,” he said.

The animal rights groups didn’t admit wrongdoing. The settlement included a temporary gag provision requiring the groups and their lawyers to wait two hours after court papers were filed Thursday morning before speaking about the deal.

The Animal Welfare Institute’s lead attorney, Stephen Neal of DiMuroGinsberg, declined to discuss how much each group would pay or how his client would cover its share. Other groups included in the settlement were The Fund for Animals, represented by Zuckerman Spaeder and Alexander Smith Ltd.; Born Free USA, represented by Schertler & Onorato; and The Humane Society of the United States, represented by Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

The Fund for Animals and Humane Society said insurance—and not donor money—would cover most, if not all, of their share. Born Free, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Feld brought racketeering claims against Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, which represented plaintiffs in the Endangered Species Act litigation and joined the settlement. The firm’s attorney, Stephen Braga of the Law Office of Stephen L. Braga in Woodbridge, Va., was not immediately available for comment.

In a statement published online, the firm said it believed it could have defeated the racketeering case. “Nonetheless, because litigating [Feld's] retaliatory case had already consumed four years of [Meyer Glitzenstein’s] time and resources, and the case was only just proceeding to the time-consuming discovery phase, the firm decided to join the organizations in bringing this matter to a close,” it said.

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com. On Twitter: @zoetillman.