Chicago pet store owners' defamation lawsuit tossed vs puppy mill activist; judge says 'no malice'

By Jonathan Bilyk | Dec 29, 2016

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 fees.

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 ruling.

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. 

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Organizations in this Story

Rifkind Patrick LLC Smith Amundsen LLC The Puppy Mill Project

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