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People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. Dade City's Wild Things, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

June 6, 2018

PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
DADE CITY'S WILD THINGS, INC., STEARNS ZOOLOGICAL RESCUE & REHAB CENTER, INC., KATHRYN P. STEARNS and RANDALL E. STEARNS, Defendants.

          ORDER

          CHARLENE EDWARDS HONEYWELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This cause comes before the Court upon Defendants'[1] Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 217) and Plaintiff People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc.'s (“PETA”) Response in Opposition (Doc. 241); PETA's Motion for Leave to File Second Amended Complaint (Doc. 238) and Defendants' Response in Opposition (Doc. 246); and Magistrate Judge Sansone's Report and Recommendation (Doc. 230) concerning PETA's Motion for Sanctions and Order to Show Cause Why Defendants Should Not Be Held in Contempt (Doc. 76) and PETA's Motion for Order to Show Cause Why Non-Party Kenneth Stearns Should Not Be Held in Contempt (Doc. 97). For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant PETA's Motion for Leave to File Second Amended Complaint. Therefore, Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings will be denied as moot. Given the changed procedural posture of this case, the Court will also remand the Report and Recommendation to the Magistrate Judge for further consideration.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY[2]

         PETA, an animal rights group, sued Defendants for alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1531, et seq. (the “ESA”) in connection with the operation of DCWT, a family-run zoo in Dade City, Florida. Doc. 37. PETA alleges that Defendants “take” tigers in violation of the ESA by prematurely separating tiger cubs from their mothers, forcing the cubs to swim with the public for profit, and inadequately housing and caring for the tigers. Id. DCWT filed counterclaims against PETA for tortious interference, conversion, and fraud, in relation to a PETA “investigator” who allegedly obtained employment with DCWT to generate and disseminate internal information in preparation for the filing of this action. Doc. 38.

         As part of its discovery requests, PETA sought to observe the tiger cubs in their environments at DCWT. Doc. 56-1. In June 2017, PETA served Defendants' then-counsel with a request to conduct a site inspection at DCWT and later filed a motion to compel entry upon land to conduct a site inspection of DCWT. Doc. 56. Thus began a series of events: the Magistrate Judge ordered that a site inspection occur at DCWT on July 20, 2017, the Stearns made plans to remove their tigers from DCWT, PETA filed (and the Magistrate Judge granted) an emergency motion to prohibit DCWT from moving its tigers, the Stearns relocated all of their tigers in violation of the Magistrate Judge's orders, and the Stearns denied PETA access to DCWT on July 20, 2017 to conduct the scheduled site inspection. Doc. 230.

         Following these events, PETA filed a Motion for Sanctions and Order to Show Cause Why Defendants Should Not Be Held in Contempt (Doc. 76). PETA requested the Court enter a default judgement against Defendants, dismiss Defendants' counterclaims against PETA with prejudice, award PETA its reasonable expenses, including attorneys' fees and costs, enter an order to show cause against Defendants for why they should not be held in contempt, and order the tigers transported to a sanctuary. Doc. 76. Subsequently, on September 6, 2017, PETA filed a Motion for an Order for Non-Party Kenneth Stearns to Show Cause Why He Should Not Be Held in Contempt (Doc. 97) for aiding and abetting Defendants' violation of the Magistrate Judge's discovery orders. Doc. 97. In addition, that motion requested an order requiring Kenneth Stearns to pay PETA's reasonable expenses, including attorneys' fees and costs. Doc. 97. Both motions (collectively, the “Motions for Sanctions”) were scheduled to be considered at a two-day evidentiary hearing on February 21, 2018 and February 22, 2018.

         On February 19, 2018, Defendants, who had recently obtained new counsel, filed a motion to continue the scheduled evidentiary hearing. Doc. 207. Defendants asserted that counsel did not have adequate time to prepare for the hearing or confer with Defendants. Id. Defendants also requested the hearing be continued so that they could prepare to brief the Court on a new Eleventh Circuit opinion issued on January 12, 2018 that would, allegedly, affect PETA's claims and render its case meritless. Id. Defendants alleged that a briefing of the new opinion, PETA, Inc. v. Miami Seaquarium, 879 F.3d 1142 (11th Cir. 2018), would enable the Court “to make an informed decision as to the scope of sanctions.” Id. The Magistrate Judge denied Defendants' request to continue the evidentiary hearing, citing prior warnings that Defendants' third change of counsel would not result in an extension of any deadlines. Doc. 214. Defendants then filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 217), alleging that PETA's amended complaint[3] does not state a claim for relief because it does not sufficiently allege a “threat of serious harm” as required by Miami Seaquarium. Doc. 217. PETA requested an extension of time to respond to Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and Defendants opposed the request. Docs. 221, 223. The Magistrate Judge granted PETA's request for an extension, allowing PETA until March 20, 2018 to respond to Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Doc. 227.

         The evidentiary hearing proceeded as scheduled, and the Magistrate Judge heard testimony from witnesses and received evidence related to the alleged discovery violations. Docs. 219-220. On March 2, 2018, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), setting forth findings based on the evidence entered in the record at the evidentiary hearing and making a recommendation to the Court. Doc. 230. The Magistrate Judge determined that immediately after receiving PETA's request for a site inspection, the Stearns “began a calculated and deliberately deceptive process of disposing of their twenty-four tigers designed to frustrate the site inspection and eliminate evidence.” Id. The Magistrate Judge concluded that the Stearns had lied to their contacts, veterinarians, attorney, and the Court, and determined that the breadth of their “deceit is confounding.” Id. The Magistrate Judge further determined that the Stearns' actions resulted in significant prejudice to PETA and the Court, and that removing the tigers was spoliation of evidence that was done willfully and in bad faith. Id. The Magistrate Judge analyzed potential sanctions under Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and under the Court's inherent authority to sanction litigation misconduct. Id. Ultimately, the Magistrate Judge recommended entry of a default judgment against Defendants, as well as dismissal of their counterclaims and an award to PETA of its reasonable attorneys' fees and expenses incurred as a result of Defendants' failure to comply with the Magistrate Judge's discovery orders. Id. The Magistrate Judge declined to recommend sanctions for non-party Kenneth Stearns, determining that he would be affected by the imposition of the recommended sanctions on Defendants given that DCWT is a family business. Id. Defendants timely filed Objections to the R&R on March 16, 2018.

         On March 19, 2018, PETA contemporaneously filed a Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 238) and a Motion for Leave to File Second Amended Complaint (“Motion to Amend”) (Doc. 241). In its Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, PETA acknowledges Miami Seaquarium but argues that PETA's operative complaint states a claim for relief because it adequately alleges ESA takes under the “threat of serious harm” standard articulated by the Eleventh Circuit. Doc. 241. Meanwhile, PETA's Motion to Amend states it “seeks [amendment] to incorporate evidence obtained during discovery [including the July transportation of tigers and consequent death of three tiger cubs] and to address recently articulated changes in the legal standard.” Doc. 238. PETA alleges amendment will “harmonize the existing allegations in PETA's [operative complaint] to conform with the Eleventh Circuit's recently articulated ‘threat of serious harm' standard [as provided in Miami Seaquarium].” Id.

         Defendants oppose PETA's Motion to Amend. Doc. 246. Defendants argue PETA does not show good cause to amend because PETA was not diligent and displays an undue and dilatory motive in seeking amendment. Id. Defendants further argue PETA's proposed amendment would be futile and would unduly prejudice Defendants and the Court. Id.

         On March 30, 2018, this Court considered the R&R and Defendants' Objections and entered an Order Deferring Ruling on PETA's Motions for Sanctions given Defendants' pending challenge to PETA's operative complaint and PETA's new request to amend. Doc. 249. The Court expressed concern about the procedural appropriateness of entering a sanction of default judgment against Defendants on PETA's operative complaint while Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and PETA's Motion to Amend were pending. Id. The Court will now address the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and the Motion to Amend.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide that a court should freely grant leave to amend “when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). “[T]he grant or denial of an opportunity to amend is within the discretion of the [d]istrict [c]ourt”. Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962). A district court may deny a motion to amend on numerous grounds, including undue delay, undue prejudice to the defendant(s), and futility of the amendment. Maynard v. Bd. of Regents of the Div. of Univs. of the Florida Dep't. of Educ., 342 F.3d 1281, 1287 (11th Cir. 2003). Although the Court has discretion to deny pleading amendments under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a), there is a strong preference in the Eleventh Circuit for allowing them. See Burger King Corp. v. Weaver, 169 F.3d 1310, 1319 (11th Cir. 1999).

         District courts must issue scheduling orders limiting the time to join parties, amend the pleadings, complete discovery, and file motions. Fed.R.Civ.P. 16(b)(3). Accordingly, while leave to amend a pleading is “freely given” under Rule 15(a), a court must also consider the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b)(4), which provides that a Case Management and Scheduling Order “may be modified only for good cause and with the judge's consent.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 16(b)(4); Sosa v. Airprint Sys., Inc.,133 F.3d 1417, 1418-19 (11th Cir. 1998). Thus, a movant seeking leave to amend after the deadline must show good cause by demonstrating that despite their diligence, the deadline could not be met. Sosa, 133 F.3d at 1419 (“[To Consider] Rule 15(a) ...


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