Recent federal court rulings illustrate how the courts are serving as an umpire sometimes restraining the government and litigants.

On April 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued a ruling, in Kuehl, et al., v. Sellner, et al., affirming the District Court’s decision which held that the defendants had violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in their operation of the Cricket Hollow Zoo (a licensed facility), located in Manchester, IA. The plaintiffs, which included the Animal Legal Defense Fund, sued the Sellners alleging that the conditions in which some endangered species (lemurs and tigers) were housed in the zoo amounted to a mistreatment of these endangered species.

Approximately 300 animals are housed in the zoo, which is managed by the Sellners (who are not paid) and occasional volunteers. Following visits to the zoo in 2012 and 2013, complaints about the animals’ mental health and physical well-being were filed by members of the Animal Legal Defense Fund with local governmental agencies regarding the conditions they observed. Dissatisfied with the results they obtained, this lawsuit was filed.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa agreed that the evidence demonstrated that there were violations of the ESA in that the animals had been “harassed,” as defined by the ESA, and the implementing ESA rules, and ordered that the lemurs and the tigers be transferred to another location. However, the District Court rejected the plaintiffs request that their attorney’s fees (approximately $240,000) be paid by the defendants.

The Eighth Circuit also refused to award attorney’s fees:

“The conclusion to be drawn from such argument is that plaintiffs seek to close Cricket Hollow by obtaining $239,979.25 in attorney fees, costs and other expenses”, and this would be inconsistent with the Act’s limited purpose.”

Also on April 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided a constitutional claim triggered by the abrupt shut- off of water service by the City of Syracuse, New York and its water department. The case is Winston v. City of Syracuse, et al. After the City of Syracuse shut off her water because the landlord failed to timely pay the water bill, Winston, a resident of the apartment, sued the City of Syracuse in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York under the provisions of 42 U.S.C. §1983. The plaintiff argued that their actions in turning off the water and refusing to give her the opportunity to set up a separate account in her own name violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment.

The District Court dismissed this lawsuit in its entirety, but the Second Circuit unanimously ruled that the District Court erred in dismissing all of the plaintiffs’ constitutional challenges. While the Second Circuit was satisfied that the City of Syracuse had a rational basis for not allowing tenants to set up their own water service accounts, the automatic service termination policy set in motion when the landlord failed to pay his bills “was not rationally related to a legitimate government interest.” Somewhat surprisingly, there have been several recent federal appeals court rulings dealing with similar issues.

Lastly, on April 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a new Maryland state law aimed at the ”price-gouging” attending the sale of prescription medicines violates the Constitution’s “dormant Commerce Clause” because the law directly regulates the price of transactions that occur outside Maryland. The case is Association for Accessible Medicines v. Frosh.

The law, Maryland House Bill 631 (HB 631), became law without the Governor’s signature, who had expressed reservations about the constitutionality of its provisions. The “essential medications,” whose price is the principal concern of this legislation, are deemed essential because of their efficacy in treating life-threatening and chronic health conditions. The District Court dismissed the lawsuit, but the Fourth Circuit ruled, in a 2 -1 decision, that HB 631 interferes with interstate commerce as it is not triggered by conduct that takes place in Maryland, but controls the price of transactions that occur outside the state. In doing so, the law places an illegal burden on interstate commerce, which is a violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause.

Judge Wynn filed a lengthy dissent, arguing that the majority misapplied relevant Supreme Court precedents and the limited scope of the “extraterritoriality doctrine” employed by the courts to assess a challenged state law in these circumstances.