New Jersey Appellate Division Affirms Dismissal of Animal Cruelty Qui Tam Action

By John M. Simpson

In Goldman v. Critter Control of New Jersey, ___ A.3d ___, No. A-1392-16T2, 2018 WL 2089803 (N.J. App. Div. May 7, 2018), the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, recently affirmed the dismissal of two lawsuits brought by the former chief law enforcement officer for the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals against defendants who, plaintiff alleged, had violated the New Jersey Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCAA), N.J.S.A. §§ 4:22-11.1 to 060.  The complaints sought to recover damages and civil penalties from the defendants “by way of qui tam.”  Id. at *1.  The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that plaintiff lacked standing to proceed with either lawsuit.

The first case arose from the removal of a raccoon from a residential dwelling, and the second case from the conditions in which horses allegedly were held on a farm.  In the latter case, the plaintiff disagreed with the decision of the Monmouth SPCA not pursue civil or criminal charges against the defendants.  Id. at * 2.  Plaintiff had alleged no ownership interest in, control over, or financial interest in any of the animals involved and had not brought either case in the name of the New Jersey or any county SPCA.

The appellate court found no basis in the PCAA for a qui tam action by a private party:

The PCAA authorized enforcement of the animal cruelty laws of New Jersey or county SPCAs; authorized the SPCA to promulgate uniform bylaws and guidelines; required humane officers to be trained in these “mandatory uniform standards, guidelines and procedures;” authorized the imposition of civil penalties; dedicated all of the penalties to the SPCAs; allowed collection of the penalties pursuant to a law that allows administrative agencies to collect penalties; and long ago, removed language referencing qui tam actions or informers.  Given the many amendments of this legislation, we decline to interpret the PCAA as authorizing qui tam lawsuits.

Id. at *6.  The court ruled that “[q]ui tam suits must be expressly authorized by legislation.”  Id.  While the New Jersey False Claims Act permits such suits, in contrast to that law, PCAA does not give the government the opportunity to review the complaint and intervene; does not bar persons from intervening; does not provide for a stay of an action to avoid interference with a government investigation or prosecution; does not allocate penalty proceeds; has no statute of limitations; and has no provision to address frivolous cases filed by individuals in the name of an SPCA.  Id.  Just as important, observed the court,

qui tam actions filed by individuals under the PCAA would conflict with the uniform enforcement of animal welfare laws throughout the PCAA.

Id.  The court  found “nothing in the legislative history and the PCAA’s many amendments” to support plaintiff’s claim that  the PCAA “allows him to file lawsuits to enforce animal protection laws even where the SPCA investigated the allegations and chose not to do so.”  Id. at *7.