The Fifth Circuit has affirmed dismissal of two different cases against our client, the Houston Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals (Houston SPCA), arising out of the 2015 “Conroe 200” rescue.
In 2015, the Houston SPCA assisted the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in a rescue of more than 200 horses (dubbed the “Conroe 200”) found on a farm in over 100-degree weather without access to shelter or water, many of which were starving and in dire need of medical care. The owners of the farm, Herman and Kathleen Hoffman, were found liable for animal cruelty in civil court, and the court awarded ownership over the horses to the Houston SPCA, along with a judgment for $450,000 for the horses’ immediate medical care. The Hoffmans appealed, lost, and then sought certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court which was denied. The Hoffmans were each later convicted of five counts of animal cruelty related to this same incident.
In 2016, Mr. Hoffman filed for bankruptcy and filed an adversary proceeding against the Houston SPCA. He sought a finding that the state court judgment was void for lack of jurisdiction, a declaration that the horses, which he valued at $1.5M, belonged to him, and return of the horses. Bankruptcy Court Judge Marvin Isgur granted our motion to dismiss, holding that the doctrines of collateral estoppel and issue preclusion barred the claims. The bankruptcy court also held that the fraudulent transfer claims failed as a matter of law because Mr. Hoffman had no ownership interest in the horses when the state court gave them to the Houston SPCA.
Mr. Hoffman appealed to the district court. While the appeal was pending, the Hoffmans filed a second suit, adding constitutional claims but seeking the same relief, against the Houston SPCA and various Montgomery County officials. In June 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes dismissed all claims in both cases, and a related case against the Hoffmans’ neighbor, holding that the claims against the Houston SPCA were barred by collateral estoppel, issue preclusion, and the statute of limitations.
On April 3, 2020, the Fifth Circuit affirmed in both cases, publishing an opinion holding that the Hoffmans’ claims against the Houston SPCA are barred by issue preclusion and the statute of limitations. The ruling provides valuable case law on the rights of animal welfare groups who obtain custody of abused animals, and it is a rewarding end to a difficult rescue and aftermath.
Tracy LeRoy serves as the Houston SPCA’s litigation counsel and represented the Houston SPCA and its employee on a pro-bono basis.