Nonhuman rights project

In Justice v. Gwendolyn Vercher, Case No. 18CV17601 (Oregon Judicial Department, Washington County Circuit Court, Twentieth Judicial District, Sept. 17, 2018) the Court dismissed a complaint filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, for Justice, the Plaintiff, a quarter horse.  The Court held that an animal, including the equine Plaintiff, lacked the legal capacity to sue, pursuant to Oregon Rule of Civil Procedure (ORCP) §21(A)(4) and for failure to state facts sufficient to constitute a claim, pursuant to ORCP 21(A)(8).

The court finds that a non-human animal such as Justice lacks the legal status or qualifications

necessary for the assertion of legal rights and duties in a court of law . . . Justice is not the real party in interest. There are profound implications of a judicial finding that a horse, or any non-human animal for that matter, is a legal entity that has the legal right to assert a claim in a court of law. Such a finding would likely lead to a flood of lawsuits whereby non-human animals could assert claims we now reserve just for humans and human creations such as business and other entities. Furthermore, non-human animals are incapable of accepting legal responsibilities.

The Court observed that an appellate court or the state legislature might determine that public policy regarding this issue should permit such legal actions from animals, perhaps opening the door for further uncertainty through an appeal or legislative action.

The Court declined to award attorneys’ fees and costs to the defendant that was dragged into this seemingly frivolous lawsuit.

This is not the first time—or likely the last—activist nonprofit organizations have filed lawsuits on behalf of animals, in attempts to elevate their status to those of humans.  The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. (NHRP) filed a number of failed attempts to apportion personhood rights to certain animals, The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., on Behalf of Tommy v. Lavery, 100 N.E.3d 846 (N.Y. 2018); The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. ex rel. Tommy v. Lavery, 54 N.Y.S.3d 392, 394 (N.Y. App. Div. 2017), leave to appeal denied sub nom. The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., on Behalf of Tommy v. Lavery, 100 N.E.3d 846 (N.Y. 2018); The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. ex rel. Kiko v. Presti, 3 N.Y.S.3d 698 (N.Y. App. Div. 2015); The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., ex rel. Kiko v. Presti, 999 N.Y.S.2d 652 (App. Div. 2015); Article 70 of CPLR for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. ex rel. Hercules & Leo v. Stanley, 16 N.Y.S.3d 898 (N.Y.  Sup. Ct. 2015); The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Stanley, 2015 WL 1812988 (N.Y. Sup.); see also, Cetacean Community v. Bush, 386 F.3d 1169 (9th Cir. 2004); Naruto v. Slater, 2018 WL 1902414 (9th Cir. April 23, 2018); Tilikum v Sea World Parks & Entertainment, 84 2 F.Supp.2d 1259 (S.D. Cal. 2012).

NHRP filed another petition, The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. R.W. Commerford & Sons, Inc., No. 17-5009822, slip op. (Conn. Super. Ct. Dec. 26, 2017), seeking personhood rights through a writ of habeas corpus for three elephants in Connecticut owned by R.W. Commerford & Sons, Inc. (the “Commerford Zoo”) on November 13, 2017.  Long before the scheduled status conference, which was to be held on February 27, 2018, the Court filed a Judgment of Dismissal and related Memorandum of Decision on December 26, 2017, finding that the petitioner lacked standing under the “next friend” theory.  Id.

The burden is on the next friend clearly to establish the propriety of his status and thereby justify the jurisdiction of the court . . . [and holding that] [b]ecause the petition has failed to allege that it possesses any relationship with the elephants, the petitioner lacks standing.

The Court also found the petition “wholly frivolous on its face in legal terms,” stating:

even if the petitioner here had standing, resolution in its favor would require this court to determine that the asserted liberty interests in its petition are assured by statute, constitution, or common law, i.e., that an elephant is a person for the purposes of this land’s laws that protect the livery and equality interests of its persons . . . [and] [b]ased on the law as it stands today, this court cannot so find.

Recently, the NHRP filed another writ of habeas corpus in Orleans County, New York, The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., on behalf of Happy v. Breheny, No. 18-45164 (N.Y. 2018) “demanding recognition of [an elephant named] Happy’s legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty as well as her transfer to an elephant sanctuary.”  Happy has been housed at the Bronx Zoo since around 1977.  In the Memorandum of Law filed in support of its application, NHRP did not cite to the decision in R.W. Commerford & Sons, Inc.

Circuit Judge Smith’s concurring opinion in Naruto v. Slater, 2018 WL 1902414 (9th Cir. April 23, 2018) also discusses restrictions on “next friend” or “third party” standing, stating:

The limitations on the ‘next friend’ doctrine are driven by the recognition that ‘it was not intended that the writ of habeas corpus should be availed of, as matter of course, by intruders or uninvited meddlers, styling themselves as next friends’ . . . Indeed, if there were no restrictions on ‘next friend’ standing in federal courts, the litigant asserting only a generalized interest in constitutional governance could circumvent the jurisdictional limits of Art. III simply by assuming the mantle of ‘next friend.’

More to come on these latest legal proceedings and other continued attempts to change the legal status of nonhuman animals.

You have probably heard of the decision by the First Judicial Department’s Appellate’s Division upholding the lower courts’ decision not to sign orders to show cause seeking the transfer of chimpanzees from one form of captivity to another, under the rejected narrative that writs of habeas corpus should be applied to the chimps because they are allegedly “persons.”

Citing to and relying on the amicus brief filed by Pepperdine Law Professor Richard Cupp, the Court held that animals are not legal persons because they are unable to fulfill legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions.  The Court described and rejected petitioner’s repeated attempts to have courts grant “personhood status” to chimpanzees.

Petitioner has filed four identical petitions in four separate state courts in four different counties in New York. Each petition was accompanied by virtually the same affidavits, all attesting to the fact that chimpanzees are intelligent, and have the ability to be trained by humans to be obedient to rules, and to fulfill certain duties and responsibilities. Petitioner has failed to present any new information or new ground not previously considered. The “new” expert testimony presented by petitioner continues to support its basic position that chimpanzees exhibit many of the same social, cognitive and linguistic capabilities as humans and therefore should be afforded some of the same fundamental rights as humans.

Interestingly, the NonHuman Right’s Project (NhRP) describes the chimpanzees for whom they filed petitions―Tommy, Hercules, Leo, and Kiko―as “clients.” 

This is curious, since, according to New York State’s Rules of Professional Conduct  (yes there are ethical standards for attorneys) there are a number of provisions that call into question whether these chimpanzees should be considered “clients.”

For example, Rule 1.4 requires a lawyer to inform their client of “any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client’s informed consent . . . is required.”  Did or could the chimpanzee “clients” provide informed consent to NhRP to file the petitions?

Also, Rule 1.7 (Conflict of Interest: Current Clients) states in relevant part:

a lawyer shall not represent a client if a reasonable lawyer would conclude that . . . there is a significant risk that the lawyer’s professional judgment on behalf of a client will be adversely affected by the lawyer’s own financial business, property or other personal interests.

Does the NhRP’s interest in and requests for donations related to these petitions affect the lawyers’ professional judgment related to these petitions?

Rule 7.1 provides:

A lawyer or law firm shall not use or disseminate or participate in the use or dissemination of any advertisement that: contains statements or claims that are false, deceptive or misleading . . . [where] such an advertisement may include information as to . . . (2) names of clients regularly represented, provided that the client has given prior written consent . . .

The NhRP advertises the names of four chimpanzees as their “clients.”  There is no indication on the website that the chimpanzees― Tommy, Hercules, Leo, or Kiko―provided written consent for this purpose (nor would it have been possible for them to do so).

It is clear that NhRP believes passionately in its mission statement, to “work for the recognition and protection of fundamental rights for nonhuman animals,” but perhaps they should be more careful about their use of words, like “clients.”

Words matter.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed another petition for a writ of habeas corpus (available of NhRP’s website) to:

a) require Respondents to justify their detention of a chimpanzee named Tommy,

b) order Tommy’s immediate discharge, and

c) order Tommy’s transfer to an appropriate primate sanctuary, which the NhRP suggests is Save the Chimps.

This is not the first attempt by NhPR to “free” a chimpanzee from “illegal captivity.”

As disclosed in the Verified Petition filed in the County of New York on December 2, 2015, the NhRP filed a number of similar cases in courts throughout New York, including a previous petition to release Tommy, which, when denied, they unsuccessfully appealed.

One previous application for a writ of habeas corpus and order to show cause was filed by the NhRP on behalf of Tommy in the Supreme Court, Fulton County on December 2, 2013 (Index No. 02051).  An ex parte hearing on the record was held . . . before the Honorable Joseph M. Sise, Justice of the Supreme Court, at which time the application was denied . . .

On December 4, 2014, the Third Department affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the NhRP’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus . . .

Verified Petition at ¶¶ 25, 27.

According to the NhRP, they are able to repeatedly re-file similar petitions because allegedly “neither issue preclusion nor claim preclusion apply to the common law writ of habeas corpus.”  Verified Petition at ¶ 32.

Likely anticipating an objection to their decision to file this petition in the County of New York (supposedly looking for a court more inclined to grant the petition), instead of Fulton County (the court where the first petition was filed and where Tommy’s owners reside) the petitioners allege:

This Court should issue the writ of habeas corpus and order to show cause . . . and make it returnable to New York County [because] . . . a writ must be returnable to the county in which it is issues except: . . . b) where the petition was made to a court outside of the county of detention, the court may make the writ returnable to such county.

Verified Petition at ¶ 12.  Petitioner made no plausible allegation for the retention of the petition in the County of New York, instead of Fulton County, over 200 miles and more than 3 hours away.

Interestingly, NhRP continues to rely on the inter vivos trust they manufactured based on New York Estates, Powers and Trusts law, section 7-8.1, which notably has no inter vivos provisions.

To support their position that they have new evidence to support their current petition, Petitioners, rely on “experts” including Jane Goodall, PhD, alleging that “chimpanzees can shoulder duties and responsibilities in their own societies and in human/chimpanzee societies,” (Verified Petition at ¶ 3) to overcome the courts’ prior denial of the writ because they concluded that chimps cannot shoulder such responsibilities, required for anyone receiving the benefit of such a writ.

NhRP continues to have significant challenges to their attempts to change policy by using, and arguably abusing the courts.  As they alleged, “[t]he New York Court of Appeals has stated that the determination of legal personhood is a policy question and not a biological one.”  Verified Petition at ¶ 3 (citing Byrn v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., 31 N.Y.2d 194 (1972)).

Courts are not the appropriate venue to address policy questions.

More to come on this continuing saga.