The owners of two Chicago pet stores who failed to overturn
a Chicago ordinance prohibiting the sale of pets from so-called “puppy mills”
have also fallen short in their lawsuit against a non-profit organization that
helped spearhead passage of that ordinances, in which they had claimed the president
of the Chicago-based Puppy Mill Project had harmed their businesses by
associating their businesses with animal cruelty.
Cook County Judge Kathy M. Flanagan dismissed the lawsuit
brought by Jim Sparks Jr., owner of Park Pet Shop, and Lane Boron, owner of
Pocket Puppies Inc., against activist Cari Meyers and her organization, the
Puppy Mill Project.
In her ruling in November, Flanagan said the pet shop owners’
defamation claims fall short because they could not prove Meyers and her
organization acted maliciously in making public statements in support of the
Chicago ordinance and against the pet shops owners’ efforts to overturn the
ordinance in court.
As both parties were enmeshed in a political and legal fight
over the ordinance, the judge said the legal bar the plaintiffs must clear to support
their claims had been raised.
“Here, the plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit to stop local
legislation on the puppy mill controversy and made public comments promoting
their position,” Flanagan wrote. “Further, the complained of defamatory
statements arise directly from that controversy. As such, they must prove
actual malice, which in light of the evidence here, they cannot.”
The legal and political exchanges between the pet shop
owners and the Puppy Mill Project group stretch back years, to when Meyers
launched her activist organization to restrict the ability of pet shop owners
to sell dogs and other animals obtained from large-scale breeding operations
believed to produce animals amid inhumane, as well as often unhealthy and
unsanitary conditions. In 2014, in part in response to Meyers and the Puppy
Mill Project’s efforts, the Chicago City Council approved an ordinance
restricting pet shops to sell only animals obtained from animal shelters, local
government pounds, kennels or “animal care facilities,” effectively prohibiting
them from selling animals obtained from commercial breeders.
The ordinance allowed breeders located within the city to
continue selling directly animals they have bred.
The pet shop owners challenged the ordinance in court,
saying it would severely harm their businesses. They asserted the majority of
their animals came from breeding operations located outside Illinois, but which
were ethical, humane breeders, not “puppy mills.”
Their challenge to the law failed.
However, while their court challenge was pending, the pet
shop owners alleged Meyers defamed them and their shops in public statements,
declaring in a magazine article that the pet shop owners “have always put
profits over the humane treatment of animals” and in another article,
describing their operations as “large-scale animal cruelty.”
The pet shop owners sought damages of more than $50,000 “for
personal humiliation and loss of current and future income,” plus attorney
In response, Meyers asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit,
arguing it was an illegal retaliatory lawsuit filed as a so-called “strategic
lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP, which would run afoul of the
state’s Citizen Participation Act, which forbids SLAPP actions against people otherwise
merely exercising their free speech and political participation rights.
Flanagan declined to find the pet shop owners had engaged in
a SLAPP action, saying, while Meyers easily demonstrated the pet shops owners’
lawsuit to be “meritless,” she did not so clearly show the lawsuit to be “retaliatory”
- a required element to find a lawsuit to have been an illegal SLAPP.
“Here, the complaint was filed four months and 10 months
after the articles were published. The time period between the publications and
the filing is not so small that it is suggestive of retaliation,” Flanagan
wrote. “Further, the Plaintiffs seek only the jurisdictional amount in damages
for personal humiliation, loss of income and costs. They do not seek damages in
the millions of dollars or unspecified punitive damages like SLAPP lawsuit
(sic) usually do.
“Accordingly, it cannot be said as a matter of law that the
Defendants (Meyers and the Puppy Mill Project) are entitled to immunity under
the Citizen Participation Act,” the judge said.
Court records do not indicate either party has appealed the
The pet shop owners were represented in the action by
attorney Sean P. Patrick, of the firm Rifkind Patrick, of Chicago.
Meyers and the Puppy Mill Project were represented by the
firm of Smith Amundsen, of Chicago.