Friday, September 14, 2012

Dog hoarder loses her case

There is such a thing as dog hoarding. The SPCA often shows up after neighbors complain about the smell of dog feces and other foul odors, and the hoarder is charged with violating the New York State Agricultural and Markets Law. Sometimes the hoarders file a civil rights suit over the confiscation of their animals. These are very hard cases to win.

The case is Fabrikant v. French, decided on August 16. After Fabrikant's criminal charges were dismissed, she sued the SPCA for constitutional violations, including false arrest and the seizure and outplacement of her dogs. The district court dismissed the case, and the Court of Appeals (Newman, Straub and Lynch) affirms.

These cases are hard to read if you love dogs. The Second Circuit lays out the suffering these many dogs experienced, and I will spare you the details. The case is notable for a few holdings, though. First, the Court of Appeals says for the first time that people working for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals may be sued under Section 1983 as state actors. This is because animal control is traditionally a governmental function. Municipalities have delegated that function to local SPCA's. That's what happened in Ulster County, where this case originated and incidentally where I live and have donated to and visited the SPCA with our beloved Standard Poodle who lives like a king and basically runs the household.

The other holding of note is the qualified immunity ruling. The Court of Appeals rejected plaintiff's constitutional claim on qualified immunity grounds even though defendants waived/forfeited that argument in failing to raise it in the district court. Qualified immunity gets government defendants off the hook if the court finds they acted reasonably under the circumstances or the case law was not clear at the time they alleged violated the plaintiff's rights. In fact, defendants did not assert qualified immunity until oral argument in the Second Circuit. No matter. The Court of Appeals can resolve this issue because it is a question of law without any need for additional factfinding. Having gotten around the waiver, the Court says that the SPCA defendants are immune from suit because in 2002, when the events gave rise to this case, there was no clearly-established "right not to have her dogs sterilized by the SPCA, at least without some form of process, prior to being sent to foster homes while she was awaiting trial in state court on animal abuse charges." Even today, SPCA workers would not reasonably understand "that spaying or neutering  Fabrikant's dogs following their seizure from her home violates a clearly established due process right." Rather, state law allows SPCA's and humane societies broad powers to promote the welfare of at-risk animals.

Finally, the Court of Appeals rejects plaintiff's search and seizure claim because the SPCA had probable cause to seize the animals. There is no evidence that anyone conspired against Fabrikant, and the SPCA people testified in detail about the conditions they observed when they came upon Fabrikant's property. It's difficult to get around a probable cause finding in a Section 1983 suit, particularly in cases like this where eyewitnesses give firsthand accounts in support of the charges. Law enforcement is allowed to rely on those firsthand accounts in going after the alleged wrongdoer.

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