Although the award is considerably smaller than the first and less than requested, for the second time in a year, a court has required a university to pay attorneys’ fees to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for its litigation to obtain records related to research involving animals.
On Aug. 8, Judge James F. Quinn of the Supreme Court of Suffolk County, New York, ordered the State University of New York at Stony Brook, referred to in documents as SBU, to pay PETA $140,000; the organization sought $263,518.75. SBU’s behavior meant PETA “met with resistance every step of the way and was compelled to litigate almost every step of the way,” Quinn said. The case demonstrates how a public records request can morph into a costly award for attorneys’ fees and appears to reaffirm the success of PETA’s somewhat ancillary line of attack against institutions conducting research using animals.
“We’re very happy” with the ruling, Caitlin Hawks, PETA’s general counsel, told RRC. “Even with the reduction, the award is still six figures and this should demonstrate to universities that illegally hiding records of experiments on animals can be very expensive and an enormous waste of taxpayer funds.”
RRC asked SBU to comment on the ruling, which can be appealed. Officials sent a general statement addressing compliance with laws and regulations governing research involving animals.
The new award follows an October ruling that required the University of Washington (UW) to pay PETA $540,000 in fines and penalties, of which $277,584 was attorneys’ fees.
As RRC previously reported, one of PETA’s strategies is to review inspection and citation reports issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and reports submitted to the NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare and to request documents from universities and other institutions using federal and state open records laws.
PETA brings litigation when, in its view, documents are withheld or incomplete.
The organization has several other suits pending against universities and NIH for documents, and, as the SBU and UW litigation shows, it may also seek an award of attorneys’ fees once it has the information sought if state law allows.